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When will Microsoft stop bothering to sell compilers?

The amount of money Microsoft make from selling compilers is peanuts compared to the profits from their Office and OS products (they may even lose money), and this will never change.

In the 80s, when the IBM PC was first introduced and began to take over the computing world, the Microsoft C compiler was not the market leader and not the favorite among developers who had a choice (large companies preferred to buy from large companies and so Microsoft C did well in the corporate market).

The developer market back then was not large and companies selling compilers soon found themselves selling into a saturated market, and many disappeared.

C++ came along and compiler companies jumped on this bandwagon, giving them a new product to sell for a few years.

As an OS vendor, Microsoft needed its own compiler to appear credible to developers. The libraries (the one part of the compiler suite that everybody liked) came along for free, courtesy of being an OS vendor. The IDE, Visual Studio, has grown on developers over time and has gotten a lot better. Visual C++ became the dominant Windows compiler because it was the last man standing.

Like all compilers, Visual C++ supports its own way of doing things in various parts of the language. Use of compiler language foibles are the mechanism by which application developers build porting cost barriers, to other compilers, into their code. Any large application built using Visual C++ will need a lot of effort to port to another compiler, a benefit for Microsoft.

The porting cost generated by compiler differences is a two-way street. Porting applications from another compiler to Visual C++ could be just as expensive as porting from Visual C++.

Microsoft can remove the cost of porting to Windows by supporting llvm within Visual Studio (I don’t ever see them supporting gcc for licensing reasons), plus command line support so that existing make files work and at the end of last year they sort of did just that (they bolted the llvm C/C++ front end onto the code generators for Visual C++; they obviously did not want to cause embarrassment by making it easy for developers to compare the performance of generated code ;-).

There is a large potential downside for Microsoft supporting llvm, it provides an in-your-face opportunity for current Visual C++ users to try another compiler (I suspect a goodly number have never touched any other C+ compiler). The problem with existing Visual C++ user accessing other compilers is not about code quality (Microsoft compilers have never been known for generating the fastest code), it is about making it easy for developers to learn how to make their code portable to other compilers.

Why would a company want to support a version of its product that compiles with Visual C++ abd a version that compiles with llvm? In the short term expediency, but in the long term it makes sense to use a single compiler.

Microsoft has ported it’s Office products to non-Windows platforms. Was Visual C++ involved? Using Visual C++ would have meant extending it to support the language extensions that occur in the headers files present on other platforms. There are advantages to using the compiler used to build the OS and I suspect this is what the Office team did (I don’t have any inside knowledge).

Is the only long term customer of Visual C++ the Windows development group? I wonder how hard it would be to tweak Windows+llvm so that one could build the other?

The writing is on the wall for Visual C++; how long does it have? Five years, 10?

I would not be surprised if there are a few very large customers, with many millions of lines of code they do not want to touch, who would put up the money to keep the development group on life support. Visual studio could be around 50 years from now, kept alive by the need to compile huge dinosaurs that are not quite important enough or cause enough grief to warrant rewriting. Perhaps it will end up being the oldest commercial compiler still in production use.

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