Gates: developers are critical

The grunt work being done by today’s software developers is making 2002 a “seminal” year for the IT industry, and is re-introducing the idea that IT systems can drive corporate profit, said Bill Gates, speaking at a gathering of programmers in Toronto recently.

He said as hardware and storage becomes viewed as a commodity, it is software that will become the focus of IT departments everywhere. As such, the industry will have to focus on making the time for support and development of these applications, Gates added.

Microsoft Corp.’s chief software architect, in his first visit to Canada in more than four years, also stressed his company’s dedication to making its software secure and explained his take on the open source movement during a 45 minute keynote speech.

But it was the notion of Web services, which involves the instant sharing of data across software or corporate boundaries via a slew of standards and protocols, that Gates clearly wished to discuss. He said its impact will likely go beyond the simple transmission of customer information, extending into such roles helping IT managers oversee the management of server farms.

“Web services would have had to be invented for that reason alone,” he said. “(And) developers are key to this vision.”

Earlier, when asked by a Microsoft Canada product manager how many of those in attendance were currently working on Web services-related projects, about one-third of the audience raised their hands. Slightly fewer said they were considering doing so in the near future.

Gates pointed to this year’s release of Visual Studio .Net and the establishment of the .Net platform as proof that Microsoft is serious about the technology. He also outlined the planned release of the “XML to the core” next generation of SQL Server, code-named Yukon, and the more distant Longhorn, the new version of Windows.

Although Web services is only now finding its legs, Gates told the audience that he first investigated XML more than five years ago, when small niche players began experimenting with it.

It was intuition and a lot of dialogue with Microsoft’s major customers and partners that led to the decision to invest heavily in XML’s future, he said.

On the more sensitive topic of security, Gates said Microsoft is currently spending one-third of its research budget on its Trustworthy Computing initiative. Gates announced the initiative in January in a memo to Microsoft employees that was also released to the media. In that memo, Gates said that despite all the features added to Microsoft’s products over the years, none of them were important if the products were not secure.

“So now, when we face a choice between adding features and resolving security issues, we need to choose security,” he wrote at the time.

“But this is not something that gets solved one time, forever,” Gates told the audience. “It’s a journey.”

Gates also addressed the issue of open source software – the one topic that consistently drew amused reaction from the audience. He lauded the free software being developed by universities, but said it’s only one part of the software industry’s larger “ecosystem”, where such software is converted into commercial products. Profits from those sales are then pumped back into universities, which use the funds to drive more free innovation.

“There are some things that have come out of the open source community that are best practices,” he conceded.

But he also warned: “Anything that hurts this ecosystem has to be looked at, and could create problems.”

At least one attendee liked what she heard. “I heard good confirmation of things I thought were important…about standards,” said Kate Gregory, partner at Gregory Consulting in Pontypool, Ont. “Working with groups like the Web Services Interoperability (Organization), that’s really important for me.”

Web services is going to play a crucial role in future IT development, and Gregory said Microsoft is right to stress the technology. “It’s the way to handle the legacy integration issues,” she said.