Partly because it has been way too long since I posted anything, and partly because there’s a lot of really big news going around today, I thought I’d take a few minutes to weigh in on the RIA hubub. Parts of Flex are being open sourced, Silverlight just got unveiled, Apollo is coming our way soon, and Ajax implementations and frameworks are all over the place. Every time I hit a link to a WPF app, I’m thrilled by the experience. Click-once finally works, and the apps have a ton of potential. Lots of good new stuff is becoming very real very quickly, and the future looks bright indeed for highly functional client application development that goes beyond the limitations of standard browser apps.
All of that is really good, and I’m truly excited to see the attention that these platform developments are getting. Everyone seems to have something to say about how cool it all is, so I’m not going to belabor that point. The thing that I’d like to see a little more discussion about is how people are going to get their hands on the tools to make all of this new stuff work. With Ajax, I think it’s a pretty straightforward story. Grab a toolkit and go to town. Most of it is free. With the others, I’m just not getting a warm fuzzy feeling yet.
In the case of Adobe, they probably need to generate a fair amount of revenue from their tools, since that’s pretty much all they do. I see Ryan Stewart talking about tools revenue like it’s a great thing because it will keep Adobe in business. I’ve purchased software from Adobe, and it’s painfully expensive. Microsoft also seems to be very keen to charge a lot of money to outfit a developer workstation with the good stuff. Mostly the strategy there seems to be an unbundling, so that you have to buy more than once to get everything. Similar to the way that OneNote isn’t part of what you buy when you buy Office, the cool graphics tools are still partially separate from the standard MSDN subscription. The original plan was 100% separate, but enough developers screamed long enough that at least part of the tools got rebundled, but come on. It’s not like they’re free – that’s a couple thousand dollars for a yearly tool subscription, and some of the designer apps are still not included.
Lest you think I’m just ranting like a cheapskate about the unfairness of having to pay anything for any software, let me put your mind at ease. I am not even remotely suggesting that it is somehow “unfair” for Microsoft or Adobe to charge big bucks for their tools. They spend a lot of money building them, and the tools are worth a lot to people who use them. What I am suggesting is that the strategy of maximizing developer tools revenue is a really bad idea for a platform vendor. The “DEVELOPERS! DEVELOPERS! DEVELOPERS!” rant that Ballmer got so much press over is a big deal. Where is the next generation of cool applications coming from? Who’s going to be writing them? Where do they get their tools? More and more, I know developers who either don’t like Windows, or don’t use Windows. Mostly, this is because they don’t have easy access to the Windows platform that I love so dearly, and they have learned to create software using LAMP or something crazy like that. This is a critically important lever in a platform race. Developers generate synergy for the platform by creating applications that people want to use. It really seems to me like the smart thing to do is to lower the barriers to entry and get these tools in the hands of the people who will be building tomorrow’s applications. There’s an awful lot riding on it, and whatever tools revenue is being captured is pretty small compared to the platform revenues hanging in the balance.