The Hobbyist Renaissance at Microsoft

Aug 10, 2006 • 7 minutes to read

This post has been a long-time coming, and the thoughts have been germinating in my mind since 2003 that I thought I would write them down if nothing else to get this off my ever-growing to-do list. Oh and read my disclaimer.

Big Changes for a Small Product When I first came to Redmond (I used to work at Microsoft as a Developer Evangelist in the field out of Washington, DC), I learned about the Visual Studio 2005 SKU plan and how we were explicitly creating products, Visual Studio Express, for hobbyists, students, and beginner developers. “Oh my god, wow, that’s brilliant” I thought. We were making a big bet in the hobbyist customer that would radically change the status quo of our business (Visual Studio) in many ways:

  • Different Audience: We wanted to go beyond the professional developer and build targeted tools at beginners, hobbyists, and students. That meant that the way to target these customers is different [1] [2] then our traditional audience.
  • Different Design Goal: Simplicity is the soul of Express. If a feature wasn’t key to an Express scenario, it was removed or hidden.
  • Different Pricing: From $99 to free*****.
  • Different Product Size: Go from a multi-CD, multi-gigabyte install to a 50 MB IDE+Framework download. Small enough to fit on a USB keychain (which Paul infamously gave to BillG in an Express review describing how dramatic the change was.
  • Different Distribution: Use the Web, and not retail or reseller as the primary channel. The latter two are the primary way customers buy all versions of Visual Studio 2005 today.

***** Of the changes listed here, the pricing change was the most contentious. Me and many others in DevDiv had to jump in front of the train to make sure Express was free. It was a big historical departure especially given that Bill Gates himself penned his famous “An Open Letter to Hobbyists” in 1976 discussing how hobbyists were using Basic without paying for it. To be fair, Bill’s email is really about the inherit value of intellectual property, but thirty years later it’s interesting to see how history repeats itself. The Make Express Free “discussions”, were a long, uphill battle that I alluded to in my 2004 Exhaustion blog post when I said I was “fighting for what I believe in.” The 400 slides referenced in my “Exhaustion” post were dozens of market research summaries that basically showed the pro and non-pro customers having different needs and showing that a sizeable portion of these customers pricing behavior was closer to being perfectly elastic (using made up numbers this would be something like charging as little as $5 for Express could cut Express adoption by half). In any case, there are many folks to thank that made this happen and this really was a team effort, I’m truly grateful that Express is free for everyone (forever).

Hobbyists in the Press circa 2002-2004 During the same time, outside the company, there were hobbyists rumblings as far back as 2002, like Dan Bricklin’s well thought out Why Johnny Can’t Program, Larry O’Brian’s 2003 observation that hobbyists are “absolutely underserved” or Kathleen Dollard’s 2004 plea to Save the Hobbyist Programmer, and of course rebuttals like Rory Blyth’s 2004 post on Should the Hobbyist Programmer Matter to Microsoft? And of course John Dvorak’s predictable “SubjectX-Is-Dead” style of incendiary (and occasionally entertaining) writing in his 2003 article Will the Last Computer Hobbyist Turn out the Lights? discuss the unique needs/opportunities of hobbyists and entry-level developers. It was fascinating to read these at the time and think what the reaction would be when we announced Visual Studio Express. Would Dvorak be right? Is no one interested in anything beyond HTML these days? Do people even care anymore?

June 29, 2004 – Express Beta 1 The answer to whether hobbyists exist anymore is “yes.” We knew it when we first announced Express at TechEd Europe. In less than a week, we had over 100,000 downloads. For the developer tool market, that’s huge. Fast forward to RTM, and we’ve now had over six million downloads in eight months. That’s a huge number and is a phenomena in and of itself, especially when compared to other category leaders like Sirius Satellite Radio (~3 million listeners) or World of Warcraft (6 million players). While that’s not a fair comparison as Express is free, you at least get a sense for how big the market is. We did an Express customer survey in March, 2006 and the data showed that 61% are brand new to .NET and that we were in fact getting new customers.

Why Care About Hobbyists at All? Why does it even matter for Microsoft to go after hobbyists? There are really three reasons:

  1. Enabling the masses to create applications on your platform is a key factor in determining the success of your platform. Examples of course include the success of Windows where Visual Basic 1.0 democratized the ability for anyone to create a Windows application, to sites like eBay where the often-cited statistic is that 50% of their transactions come through their Web services to countless other examples. The ability for anyone to create and integrate your product/services easily (like a mashup) is key to your success.
  2. From a tools perspective, it also builds a bigger pipeline of developers who may go pro. The biggest challenge the software industry faces is that we simply don’t have the human capital to meet demand.
  3. Web Platform Wars. This is totally different from the .NET vs J2EE competition we had in the past in that the target developer isn’t in an enterprise and may not even call him or herself a developer. Yahoo has an early lead here, although MSN/Live and Google are dramatically increasing their efforts in this space.

Hobbyist Renaissance Inside Microsoft Inside Microsoft, it’s been incredibly amazing to see over the past few years, the Hobbyist Renaissance unfold. Scott Wiltamuth and I had a conversation early on in the Express development cycle where he suggested that our goal with Express should be that every organization inside Microsoft create a hobbyist strategy. That idea really struck home with me and the Express team’s been evangelizing internally ever since. There are of course plenty of teams inside Microsoft that, without any encouragement from us “get it”, while others are playing catch-up to competitors who “got-it-before-we-did” and as even others who don’t want to care.

Here are just some examples inside Microsoft:

  • Operating System – Windows Home Server, Sidebar Gadgets, PowerShell, native RSS, Peer-to-Peer, Windows Media Center API, and more
  • **Live Services **- Virtual Earth API, Live Gadgets, Search, MSN Messenger, Spaces among others
  • **Devices **– The Micro Framework
  • **Robotics **– Microsoft Robotics Studio
  • **Developer Tools **- Visual Studio 2005 Express Editions
  • **Data **- SQL Server 2005 Express Edition, SQL Server Everywhere Edition, Access
  • **Games - **XNA Game Studio Express, Flight Simulator X

Going Forward We’re not done, in fact in a lot of ways, our early success has only shown how much work there still is to do. Programming is still too hard today and, in a lot of cases, Express is still too high end for where we want to go. You should not need a four-year degree to create or modify applications, period. The future is always murky, but I can only promise you that there are lots of very cool projects going on inside Microsoft that will redefine the experience for the next generation of developers.

Join Us We’re in startup mode and want to think big and deliver quickly. Come join us and help fight the good fight!


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