Mad Libbing the Microsoft Way
by Patrick Meader
June 29, 2007
Perchance you're familiar with the Mad Lib-style of books. These books consist of several short stories, typically one to a page, where key words have been blanked out. One person calls out parts of speech for the blanked out words and others offer suggestions. When all the missing text has been supplied, the completed story is then read out loud. At this point, merriment (presumably) ensues at the incongruous elements of the story. Perchance, like me as a youngster, you were intent on seeing whether you could complete the short stories using nothing but variations of the F-word for every part of speech you were asked to fill in. OK, maybe not.
I bring these books up because I saw a stack of them for sale at the airport as I was returning from this year's Tech Ed, and it occurred to me that Microsoft has been playing a variation of Mad Libs in the way it sells new technologies to those who have been using its tools for several years.
In Microsoft's case, the Mad Lib has gone something like this: "If you're a [Visual Basic/C#/Visual Studio] developer, you're now a [fill in the blank] developer." I can think of several examples offhand, but I'm sure there are more.
When the database components were made available for an early version of Visual Basic, the line was: If you're a Visual Basic developer, you're now a database developer.
When .NET was introduced, Microsoft declaimed: If you're a VB programmer, you're now an Internet programmer.
When the Compact Framework debuted, it was asserted: If you're a Visual Studio developer, you're now a portable devices developer.
At this year's Tech Ed, I attended a workshop for programming embedded devices, and one of the presenters uttered the latest in this long string of Mad Libs: If you're a Visual Studio developer, you're now an embedded systems programmer.
I admit: I think embedded systems programming has its cool side; that's why I attended the workshop. But it's also the case that there hasn't exactly been a groundswell of readers clamoring for the ability to be embedded systems programmers. On the off chance that this has been your life's ambition, you can visit the Microsoft Web site at http://tinyurl.com/yslpja for more information on the Microsoft .NET Micro Framework and Microsoft's embedded tools offerings in general. You can also download the latest version of Microsoft's embedded systems SDK from this site; the site also includes emulators you can download for various types of devices that you might want to target.
Seeing the Mad Libs books prompted me to think about how consistent (if repetitive) Microsoft has been in its messaging through the years. The messaging might be the same, but the developer tools themselves (and the people who use them) have changed significantly. It's instructive to think back to where Visual Studio (and Visual Basic before it) began, and of the progress the tool has made in terms of accomplishing all manner of tasks, large and small.
The way Microsoft has reused this line about what kind of developer you are over time points to one of the fundamental strengths of developing applications on the Microsoft platform. That is, Microsoft has made a point of enabling you to leverage the skills you have to create not just today's applications, but the applications you'll need to create tomorrow. It has made a point of emphasizing not just the greatest new thing you can do, and the new syntaxes that let you accomplish these new tasks, but also the fact that what you already know is just as valuable as the new stuff in getting work done, if not more so. That's a powerful message, and it's a great selling point for getting people to pick up and try the new things Microsoft is doing. How much of this is marketing versus actual implementation is, of course, a subject we could debate. Not surprisingly, some of these technologies, such as the Compact Framework, deliver on the promise of this line better than others.
Putting my own spin on Microsoft's Mad Lib: If you're a Visual Studio developer, you're a current and future technology programmer.
Talk Back: How well do you think Microsoft has followed through on its efforts to enable you to do any kind of programming using its core development platform? Write us at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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