Back-sliding into Unmanaged Code

It is difficult to write about Microsoft’s ambivalence to .NET without mentioning clichés about dog food.  In case you’ve been away a long time, you’ll remember that Microsoft surprised everyone with the speed and energy with which it introduced and evangelised the .NET Framework for managed code. There was good reason for this. Once it became obvious to all that it had sleepwalked into third place as a provider of development languages, behind Borland and Sun, it reacted quickly to attract the best talent in the industry to produce a windows version of the Java runtime, with Bounds-checking, Automatic Garbage collection, structures exception handling and common data types. To develop applications for this managed runtime, it produced several excellent languages, and more are being provided. The only thing Microsoft ever got wrong was to give it a stupid name.

The logical step for Microsoft would be to base the entire operating system on the .NET framework, and to re-engineer its own applications. In 2002, Bill Gates, then Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect said about their plans for .NET, “This is a long-term approach. These things don’t happen overnight.” Now, eight years later, we’re still waiting for signs of the ‘long-term approach’. Microsoft’s vision of an entirely managed operating system has subsided since the Vista fiasco, but stays alive yet dormant as Midori, still being developed by Microsoft Research. This is an Internet-centric fork of the singularity operating system, a research project started in 2003 to build a highly-dependable operating system in which the kernel, device drivers, and applications are all written in managed code. Midori is predicated on the prevalence of connected systems, with provisions for distributed concurrency where application components exist ‘in the cloud’, and supports a programming model that can tolerate cancellation, intermittent connectivity and latency. It features an entirely new security model that sandboxes applications for increased security.

So have Microsoft converted its existing applications to the .NET framework? It seems not. What Windows applications can run on Mono? Very few, it seems. We all thought that .NET spelt the end of DLL Hell and the need for COM interop, but it looks as if Bill Gates’ idea of ‘not overnight’ might stretch to a decade or more. The Operating System has shown only minimal signs of migrating to .NET. Even where the use of .NET has come to dominate, when used for server applications with IIS, IIS itself is still entirely developed in unmanaged code. This is an irritation to Microsoft’s greatest supporters who committed themselves fully to the NET framework, only to find parts of the Ambivalent Microsoft Empire quietly backsliding into unmanaged code and the awful C++. It is a strategic mistake that the invigorated Apple didn’t make with the Mac OS X Architecture.