Microsoft revs up mobile .Net

Microsoft Corp. on Monday filled more of the gaps in its portfolio of software and tools for building Web-based applications that run on handheld computers, cell phones and other mobile devices.

The company released a second test version of its .Net Compact Framework, a runtime engine that allows .Net applications to run on small Windows devices, such as those running the Pocket PC operating system.

Microsoft also announced that it has commenced a closed beta program for the next version of its Visual Studio .Net development software, code-named Everett. That beta software includes the .Net Compact Framework and a series of “smart-device extensions” that help developers write applications for mobile devices.

The announcements are set to be made at the VSLive developer conference in Orlando, Fla., which begins Monday, where Microsoft and a number of its partners are making mobile application development the focus.

Also from the show, the Redmond, Wash., software maker will release the final version of SQL Server CE 2.0, a small version of its database product that can be used on Windows CE devices and used for applications that use database functions and can be synchronized with a company’s enterprise servers, according to David Rasmussen, product manager of Microsoft’s .Net mobile developer platform group.

With the trio of releases, Microsoft is “enabling developers to start targeting mobile devices,” Rasmussen said.

Microsoft released the .Net Framework for PCs and servers at the VSLive developer show in San Francisco in February. The runtime engine, which can be thought of as the .Net equivalent of a JVM (Java Virtual Machine), was released in tandem with the final version of Visual Studio .Net.

The .Net Framework is one of the linchpins in Microsoft’s effort to make its technology the de facto standard for designing and delivering Web-based applications and services. Developers using the software to build basic Web-based applications said it shows promise.

Mark Putriment, a product architect with Solutions 6 Group Inc.’s CMS Open division in Tallahassee, Fla., which makes finance and accounting software, has been developing applications with the .Net Framework for the past several months. He said it has helped ease the process of developing Windows applications.

The software provides “a consistent way of looking at things,” Putriment said. Where previously there were a variety of ways to architect a Windows application, the .Net Framework allows him to follow a similar methodology in each .Net project he works on, he said.

The .Net Compact Framework, which is a subset of the developer software for PCs and servers, is expected to extend that consistency to mobile application development, according to Rasmussen.

SQL Server CE 2.0, which now has built-in support for the .Net Compact Framework, will be available for free, Microsoft said. The company hopes that giving the software away will help spur sales of the enterprise version of SQL Server, which can be used in conjunction with the CE version.

SQL Server CE 2.0 can store data in both relational and XML format, and can also extract data and deliver it as an XML document for use with Web-based applications. Corporations might use the database to create mobile applications that allow field workers to place orders or track inventory from wireless devices, for example.

While the software adds to the tools available for developers building mobile .Net applications, the company faces stiff competition from Sun Microsystems Inc.’s rival Java development environment, noted Warren Wilson, director of the mobile and wireless solutions practice at Summit Strategies Inc., in Boston.

“J2ME (Java 2 Micro Edition) is certainly out there and really has become the platform of choice for handsets,” Wilson said. “But it’s still early in the game for wireless devices of all types and I wouldn’t suggest that Microsoft has missed the boat.”

In fact, he said, Microsoft is poised for rapid growth in the space, building on the strength of the 6 million developers who use its Visual Studio tools to build enterprise applications.

“To the extent that they can make mobile and wireless development a seamless part of Visual Studio, they make it very, very easy for their installed base to migrate to a mobile environment. That’s a huge leg up over competitors,” Wilson said.