REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 29, 1999 — No longer is the Internet simply a place where people read static information posted on Web pages. It is rapidly evolving into a vast network of personal and programmable services that enable users to do everything from shop for groceries to receive notification if their car alarm has been activated.
To take the Web to the next level, software developers need the right mix of tools, products and technologies. And leading Microsoft’s effort to provide developers with what they need is Tod Nielsen, Microsoft’s vice president of developer marketing.
Nielsen has been at the front of Microsoft’s efforts with developers for a number of years, and as such has played a critical role at Microsoft — helping to define the company’s technological direction. Developing the technologies and products that meet developers’ needs is critical to Microsoft’s overall success, because the more software that is developed on top of the Microsoft platform, the more attractive Microsoft’s platform will be to businesses and consumers.
“We learned early on that the more developers that use our technologies to build applications, the more successful they’ll be, — and the more successful we’ll be,”
“It is a win-win relationship.”
But while Nielsen’s group has always had its share of challenges, the Developer Group now faces one of its toughest challenges yet–providing developers with the technology they need to create a new set of sophisticated Web-based services and applications. If successful, this technology will usher in a new era of Internet computing, one that fundamentally transforms the Web into a far more personal, interactive and useful tool than it is today.
“In the developer division, we’re the plumbers. We’re the infrastructure guys,”
“If we’re successful, developers will use our technology to create a new set of applications that will change users’ lives and stretch the Internet beyond our imaginations.”
Nielsen sees this challenge as the next major computing paradigm shift. The Web will evolve from a place that serves up Web pages into a series of service centers that enable people and programmers to easily access the information, goods and services they want. It’s a transition as significant as the shift from mainframe computing to the PC or from character-based user interfaces to graphical user interfaces, Nielsen says.
“The Internet is as significant a change in computing paradigms as going from DOS to Windows was, and it really has a pervasive impact on how developers write code and think about applications,”
“What we need to do is take the success we have had working with developers to build Windows applications and apply that same success to people building Web applications.”
Nielsen’s high adrenaline and passion may be just the right formula to lead Microsoft through its next major challenge. Empty soda cans fill Nielsen’s trash bin, a sign of how Nielsen refuels himself throughout the day to keep up with the constant meetings with customers, partners, reporters and internal staff. A short, white leather couch sits prominently near the door to Nielsen’s small, corner office. Nielsen describes it as a
where staff members come to brainstorm solutions to their problems. For his part, Nielsen does most of his thinking on the golf course and while interacting with people.
Despite his prominent position at Microsoft, Nielsen is refreshingly modest. He’s idealistic and witty, confident and unassuming. This combination has made him the perfect person to lead Microsoft through some of its most difficult obstacles, according to colleagues.
“Tod’s real contribution has come in how he represents Microsoft,”
says Morris Beton, the Developer Group’s general manager of audience marketing and evangelism.
“He’s been a terrifically positive and rational voice in light of the most difficult situations, including the Sun Microsystems lawsuit and the Department of Justice trial. He’s continued to always show the best side of this company, and his efforts are always well received.”
“Tod’s great strength is his accessibility and his down-to-earth nature,”
says Scott Fallon, Microsoft group marketing manager.
“He’s not what people expect from people in his role. He’s a great diffuser of tense situations, and his accessibility and willingness to show a human side of the company has played a key role in helping us to develop good relationships with developers.”
Growing Up With Microsoft
Although Nielsen has rapidly moved up the ranks at Microsoft, it’s clear he hasn’t lost sight of his roots or the awe he developed for Microsoft while growing up in the Seattle area.
“I grew up with this company,”
“I started here when I was 22, and I love what this company stands for. I just love being here, being part of the environment, the chaos, the creativity. That’s what keeps me going.”
Nielsen’s roots lie about 10 miles north of Microsoft’s Redmond campus in a small town called Bothell. Nielsen graduated from Bothell High School in 1983, and attended the University of Washington for two years. He then transferred to Central Washington University in Ellensburg, where he majored in business administration, with a minor in information systems.
While attending college, Nielsen and some friends started their own company writing custom software applications for businesses.
“For example, we wrote a system to track video checkout and rental for a video store,”
“We also wrote a custom application to track how chickens were being hauled to and from a chicken farm.”
In 1988, five years after Nielsen started his own business, a Microsoft recruiter and friend invited him to work for Microsoft.
“And I was thinking, ‘Wow, can I actually work for this software company?'”
“I grew up here, so I always admired what Microsoft stood for and the quality of the people and the vision of the company. But I was just a local guy, and I wasn’t sure I really could be part of this.”
Nielsen accepted a job working in research and development on what eventually became Microsoft’s Access database product. He eventually moved to Vancouver, B.C. to manage a team of programmers that was writing complementary software to Microsoft Exchange. After moving that team to the Redmond campus a year later, Nielsen joined Microsoft’s Developer Division, where he promoted Microsoft Access to developers.
“He made huge contributions to Microsoft with his work in the Access business, making it arguably the most high volume database product in the industry,”
Morris Beton recalls.
Nielsen eventually shifted his work to other core developer tools in the Developer Tools Division including FoxPro, Visual InterDev and Internet Information Server. At the end of 1995, when Microsoft was starting to concentrate its efforts on the Internet, he transferred to Microsoft’s Developer Relations Group, since renamed the Developer Group.
Making Things Happen
Owning a business before coming to Microsoft taught Nielsen how to make things happen.
“It taught me to be creative, to realize that anything’s possible, and most importantly, that you just have to go do it,”
“Sitting back and thinking is one thing, but there’s a point where you really have to go out and have a plan and make it happen.”
During his four years at the helm of the Developer Group, Nielsen appears to have imparted that lesson to his team. Microsoft’s developer tools have become by far the most popular programming tools on the market, Nielsen says. Its SQL Server database product is quickly becoming the most popular Windows-based database application. And the core Windows technologies it is promoting such as Microsoft Transaction Server and Internet Information Server have successfully allowed developers to build more sophisticated applications.
“I think I’m most proud of the breadth and richness of our offerings,”
“A lot of our competitors have a little piece of the puzzle, but Microsoft is one of the few companies that actually has all of the pieces necessary to build the most sophisticated and powerful applications.”
In general, Nielsen says he receives satisfaction from seeing the kinds of applications developers build using Microsoft technology.
“I was recently at the Albertsons.com launch, and it was fun for me to see how people take technology that we build here and do something that’s very practical like selling groceries on the Web,”
“I love working with customers and partners, seeing what people are doing with our products, and finding out what issues they have so we can make them better.”
Perhaps Nielsen’s biggest success, according to colleagues, has been his willingness to listen and to respond to the needs of developers.
“He’s always immediately responsive to what developers want,”
“I remember one year we were at the Professional Developer Conference and we included all our software and deliverables on DVD. Tod got tons of complaints and without even a second thought immediately told the audience that we screwed up and everything would be fixed by the end of the week. He always has it in mind to give our audience what they want, however easy or complex it may be.”
“As a regional director, I often interact with various groups at various levels, and it seems that Tod has made the overall developer division more cohesive and integrated ,”
said David E.Y. Sarna, chairman of ObjectSoft Corporation.
“Tod is a great leader, but yet still very human and very approachable. Even after Tod has been made vice president, he is still accessible, still answers e-mail and is always there to listen to Microsoft’s partners.”
The Programmable Web
Today, the Web offers massive amounts of information, but little structure. As a result, users often find it difficult to obtain the exact information they need, Nielsen says. For example, someone typing a particular word into an Internet search engine might receive as many as 800,000 responses, only five of which are relevant.
“So there’s no structure; there’s no ability to reach into the sea of the Internet and get exactly what you’re looking for,”
Microsoft’s goal is to enable the Web with the structure required to turn it into a far more useful tool than it is today.
“Our vision going forward, from a developer perspective, is something we call the Programmable Web,”
“With the Programmable Web, we think the Internet will be truly programmable and structured so that it will allow developers to create compelling applications that we don’t see today.”
To provide this functionality, Microsoft is creating technology that will allow developers to link together applications, services and Web sites anywhere on the Internet to obtain more personalized information and display it on any device. This technology is fundamental to Microsoft’s goal of making software available to users any time, any place and from any device. By stitching together disparate parts of the Internet, software applications will be able to share information with other applications, providing users with more sophisticated information than is currently possible.
“There’s going to be a day when you’ll have your computer call my computer and we’ll do lunch,”
“The computers will be able to communicate and talk with each other.”
Linking together the pieces of the Internet in a more structured fashion will open up a new realm of opportunities for users, Nielsen says. For example, a car alarm company could offer a service that requires people’s car alarms to automatically notify their pagers if someone is breaking into their car. Another company could monitor Internet auction sites and notify users when an item of interest appears at the desired price. Still another company could provide a financial management service that allows users to view all of their financial information in one place by combining separate data gathered from the person’s bank, brokerage and insurance Web sites.
“It’s pretty limitless as far as what ideas people will come up with for providing and aggregating these services,”
“That’s what makes it so exciting.”
Delivering the Vision
Microsoft is taking a four-pronged approach to delivering this vision. First, it is rolling out the infrastructure that will allow developers to create programmable Web services. This infrastructure is based on Extensible Markup Language (XML), the industry standard that allows developers to describe specific types of data and lift this data out of Web pages for use in other applications. By incorporating XML into its operating systems, tools and products, Microsoft is laying the foundation for Web-based software programs to communicate with each other across networks.
“XML is going to impact the Web in a way very similar to HTML,”
“The entire industry said HTML is really important and something everyone’s products need to be able to work with. Now we are seeing the kind of broad adoption with XML. Microsoft absolutely believes XML is going to be a very significant technology for the Internet going forward, and we need to make sure all of our products support it.”
Second, Microsoft is establishing Windows DNA 2000 as the best platform for building Web-based services. Windows DNA 2000 provides a platform for developers to quickly create Web-based services that can easily be adapted to changing marketing needs, he says.
“Windows DNA is really the core offering of our entire developer platform,”
“It’s about making it easy for developers to store information, to easily write applications and to connect applications with other applications.”
Third, Microsoft is creating a complete set of tools to help developers program the Web. As in the past, these tools will allow developers to build their own applications by easily incorporating components — or re-using software code that’s already been written, just as if they were fitting together lego blocks.
“Not every developer wants to write a program for credit card authentication,”
“So a developer will be able to decide to purchase that as a service from Company X, and just have their software program call Company X’s service and it will manage the process of credit card billing for them. This approach allows developers to focus on what they are good at, and not waste time writing code that is not part of their core competency.”
Finally, Microsoft will offer its own set of
commonly used resources that developers can use as building blocks for creating their own custom Web-based services. For example, developers will be able to use MSN Instant Messenger as the basis for applications that involve notifying people — for example, when the application requires notifying a user when it has found a product at the user’s desired price. And developers can build MSN Passport into their applications to ensure the security of their Web site customers.
“MSN Passport was the 14th most popular Web site on the Internet last month, yet no user ever knew they went to it,”
“Every time you logged onto a Microsoft Web site, it actually sent you to the MSN Passport site to verify that you were indeed a valid user. And if you were, it would let you in. It’s a service we’ve now opened up to all Web programmers.”
Nielsen says Microsoft’s approach to Web-based applications allows developers to quickly build the most reliable, scalable and stable applications.
“Number one, we’re going to ensure our platform and tools are the most reliable, scalable and stable, and provide the greatest predictability for developers so they can quickly take an application and deploy it,”
“Number two, we want to make it really easy for developers to be productive and build things quickly. In essence, we want to provide as many stable building blocks as possible so all they have to do is focus on gluing them together, add their custom logic and then deliver their solution.”
Beyond The Next Paradigm Shift
Although this new era of Web-based services is still in its infancy, Nielsen says it’s already starting to take off.
“It’s one of those things that’s still in the early stages, but it’s going to explode and bring the Web to a new level,”
“It wouldn’t surprise me if by January, 100 popular Web sites are providing these kinds of services.”
But while Web-based applications promise to radically change the Web, Nielsen says the PC applications that are optimized for it will continue to thrive..
“The Web is the great melting pot — it’s diverse and heterogeneous, and it’s going to offer a wide variety of solutions,”
“But by no means do I think that it will be the only way people get applications.”
More than 100 million PCs were shipped this year, and that growth shows no signs of slowing down, In fact, just over 40 percent of PCs sold last year were laptop computers, and those users need to have solutions that work well when they are not connected to the Internet, Nielsen says. The rich computing experience that a PC provides will continue to attract ever-growing numbers of businesses and consumers, Nielsen says. In addition, there are times when people want to work offline, such as when they’re traveling.
“If everything is on the Web and I don’t have access to the Web, what does that mean?”
“What I’d like to do is tell my computer I want to accomplish certain tasks when I’m disconnected and have it bring the necessary technology down to my computer and let me do that work. So a very common scenario, I think, will be where people blend together the power of the PC and its offline customization together with the applications and services of the Web.”
Nielsen says his immediate goal is to ensure Microsoft is listening to developers and providing them the right technology for them to be successful..
“If you’re building applications, I’d love to meet you, find out what you are trying to do, tell you about the products and technologies we have, and figure out a way for us to work together so you can build the best applications,”
“That’s the key to success for developers and for Microsoft.”
In the long term, Nielsen’s goal is to anticipate the next paradigm shift beyond the Internet, and lead Microsoft through it.
“Every day I come to work thinking, ‘Who’s going to come up with the idea that’s going to change the way all of our business is structured? What can I do to anticipate that, and what can I do to make sure that if someone comes up with that idea, it’s us?'”
“I’m not going to rest until we get through this paradigm shift and get to the point where we’re the recognized leader for providing technologies and support that enables the developer community to build the best applications for the future.”