On Microsoft "Visual" products

The logo from Visio version 1.0

This post is intended as support material for another post of mine; see michael.gr - The Deployable Design Document.

One day back in the early nineties, when people were using Windows 3.0 and programming with the Microsoft C/C++ Compiler, a colleague showed me a software design that for the first time he had done not on whiteboard, nor on paper, but on a computer screen, using a new drawing tool called Visio

Screenshots of Visio 1.0 running under Windows 3.1. Click to enlarge.

He showed me interconnected components laid out on a canvas, and as he moved one of the components, the drawing tool re-routed the lines to maintain the connections to other components. This meant that Visio was not just a pixel drawing utility like Microsoft Paint; it had some understanding of the structure of the information that was being displayed. 

(Useful pre-reading: About these papers)

We both knew that the next logical thing to ask from such a tool would be to automatically produce an actual running software system according to that design; alas, Visio could do no such thing. In our eyes, the product embodied a latent promise for such functionality, but no such functionality was there.

Back then, Visio was not yet owned by Microsoft, but the two companies were obviously in talks, because the first pre-release version of Visio had been distributed by Microsoft in a floppy disc containing other Microsoft Software. (For more information about the early relationship between Microsoft and Visio, read The Early Days of Visio Corporation - Recollections by Ted Johnson, Visio Co-founder.)

Then, in 1993 Microsoft announced the successor to their Microsoft C/C++ compiler, and the name of the new product was going to be Microsoft Visual C++

Even before we could get our hands on the new compiler, we could not help but speculate what Microsoft might mean by "visual" in the product name, and our hopes were high that they would have made good on the promise of visual tools for software design. Alas, nothing of that sort happened; Microsoft Visual C++ was just another command-line toolset, and the term "visual" in the title was nothing but marketing deceit.

Then a few more years passed, and in 1997 Microsoft announced their first true Integrated Development Environment (IDE), which was going to be called Microsoft Visual Studio starting with version 5.0, a.k.a. '97.

Again, we hoped that this time they would deliver visual software design tools, and again were disappointed: sure, Microsoft was finally providing programmers with an IDE, and an IDE is admittedly a visual sort of thing, but there was still no sign of any actual visual software design tools.

A few more years passed, and in 2000 Visio was acquired by Microsoft and became Microsoft Visio (see Wikipedia.)

When we saw that acquisition happening, we thought that perhaps it was the one thing that was missing for that long unfulfilled promise to finally become a reality; surely, the next release of Visual Studio would have Visio built-in, allowing us to create our software designs and then launch them, right? 

So, a couple of years later, in 2002 another major release of Visual Studio was announced, which was  to be named Visual Studio Dot Net.

As it turned out, that new version was nothing but the exact same old version, with bundled support for the Dot Net platform, and a tacky product name slapped onto it. Visio was not in any way connected to Visual Studio, and instead it had become part of the offerings around Microsoft Office.

So, by that time, we finally accepted the realization that Microsoft's plan for world domination was not so much about actual software development breakthroughs but more about tacky product names.

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