Microsoft woos non-Windows developers with new tools

New Visual Studio Code beta and updates to Visual Studio bolster support for alternative languages and platforms

Microsoft woos non-Windows developers with new tools

The May launch of the cross-platform editor Visual Studio Code marked a sea change in Microsoft's developer strategy. Now Microsoft is pushing further into multiplatform, full-stack development with updates and new extensions for both Visual Studio Code and the Visual Studio IDE.

Based on the cross-platform Electron platform, Visual Studio Code runs on Windows, OS X, and Linux, supporting .Net and JavaScript development. Since April the preview has seen more than a million downloads. Microsoft is now moving Code into beta and providing source code on GitHub. The beta release will also add extensibility, with support for the new Visual Studio Marketplace and nearly 100 extensions at launch.

As VP for Cloud Developer Services Brian Harry told me, "Some of them are really cool: There's a Go development environment with syntax coloring and IntelliSense and a debugger. Someone else has done it for Object Pascal; we're starting to see all the various languages come into Code."

It's not only language support. You'll also find add-ons to handle tasks like spell checking and Markdown. Adding extensibility to Visual Studio Code makes a lot of sense, as it means developers can use familiar tools to build their own extensions, then share them with the rest of the development community.

The full Visual Studio IDE is getting updates too, with a Developer Essentials package that wraps around the free Community edition (but is also available to any Visual Studio user). It's perhaps best thought of as a bundling together of the current set of developer offers in a single portal, adding support for device tests and analytics, as well as training from Pluralsight and Xamarin. Getting everything in one place makes a lot of sense, as it allows developers to see what their options are -- while giving Microsoft the opportunity to upsell additional services in its new Visual Studio Marketplace.

Harry describes the Marketplace as an evolution of the existing Visual Studio Gallery. While the Marketplace will continue to offer the free solutions currently in the Gallery, you'll initially only be able to purchase Microsoft software. Microsoft expects to add third-party options early next year, Harry told me. The Marketplace will also be the home of a new way to buy Visual Studio, with the launch of a subscription option.

You'll be able to buy monthly or annual subscriptions to Visual Studio Professional and Enterprise, giving you a flexible way of deploying an IDE to developers. You can use this option to provide tools to temporary and contract developers, or have a floating subscription that can be used as required. Visual Studio Professional will come in at $45 a month or $539 a year, with Enterprise at $250 a month or $2,999 a year.

Microsoft is thinking further about the future of Visual Studio. "We're talking about a new approach to acquiring the IDE that doesn't rely so much on a big multigigabyte download," Harry said. "Instead it's a much more minimal core, then you stream down the complements you want to use." He compares it to working with tools like Node.js and its npm package manager: "If you're a Node developer you do npm to get what you want. So here you get the core Visual Studio and add the packages you want for the kind of development you do."

We live in a cross-platform world, and clearly Microsoft understands it needs to support developers across platforms. If you're worried that this is still the old Microsoft, its olive branches to Android developers and OS X users will come as a surprise.

Intended to support Android developers, it will add support for user interface elements to the existing C# and C++ support for building native Android apps in Visual Studio 2015, removing the need for developers to switch between Visual Studio and Android Studio. Android developers working on Mac OS X will get access to Microsoft's Android emulator. Microsoft is also working with Google to deliver Angular 2, which will be based on Microsoft's TypeScript language, with Google's developers using Visual Studio Code.

Visual Studio's cloud service, Visual Studio Online, is being renamed to Visual Studio Team Services, with a focus on code management and build services, as well as supporting devops. A preview of a new release management tool is being rolled out, along with package management features, and search tools that work across both Microsoft's own source code management tools and any Git repositories you're using. However, possibly the most significant feature is a set of new cross-platform release management tools, which make it easier to deploy from Visual Studio and Visual Studio Team Services to a range of targets, including working with MacInCloud to add OS X build services and the option to target Docker containers.

The changes Microsoft is making to its Visual Studio lineup make a lot of sense in the light of current trends in software development, where applications need to cross all the layers of a stack from server to desktop to tablet to cloud, in a cross-platform, multi-device world. It's good to see an open source Visual Studio Code gaining support for languages that aren't part of Microsoft's own language family, as well as the Visual Studio IDE gaining extra tools for developing and delivering Android and Mac applications.

Steve Ballmer's chant of "Developers, developers, developers!" still remains relevant today. Microsoft needs to keep Windows developers in its stack, while reaching out to other platforms. Today's announcements are another step on that journey and bode well for the future of Visual Studio. It's not only about Windows any more.

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