- Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code, a free, simple code editor for Windows, Mac and Linux, has become the most popular open source project on GitHub.
- It’s now used by 8.5 million developers each month.
- Visual Studio Code is helping Microsoft change a past perception that it’s unfriendly to developers and only focuses on homegrown products like Windows.
- Visual Studio Code is also a big part of Microsoft’s strategy to take on its cloud rivals Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud by attracting individual developers to its platform.
- Developers say they love using Visual Studio Code because it’s lightweight, fast, customizable, and easy to use with different programming languages.
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For a long time, Microsoft had the reputation for being unfriendly to developers.
After all, Microsoft infamously spent much of the ’90s and ’00s battling with the open source community — the free and remixable software that they were creating posed an existential threat to Windows and other Microsoft products. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer even infamously called the open source operating system Linux “a cancer.”
But 2014 marked a turning point, when Satya Nadella took the reins as CEO, leading the company to turn this attitude around. About a year into his reign, Microsoft released one of the surest signs yet of its new attitude: Visual Studio Code, a free and open source version of Visual Studio, Microsoft’s flagship integrated development environment (IDE), which is essentially the software that developers use to make more software.
Not only did it come with no strings attached, but it was available for Apple’s MacOS and the open source Linux operating system, in addition to Windows. Compared to Visual Studio, it has fewer features and is much more simple to use. It went on to become a massive hit with developers, with adoption levels bordering on the viral. After all, it costs nothing to download and try it out.
Today, Visual Studio Code is used by developers at companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Red Hat, and the like. It has 8.5 million monthly average users, and 19,000 developers contributing code to it, making it the top open source project on GitHub. And according to the Stack Overflow Developer Survey, it’s the most popular IDE out there today, with 50.7% of developers using it, up from 34.9% the previous year.
“We did a huge strategic pivot,” Julia Liuson, corporate vice president of the developer division at Microsoft, told Business Insider. “The pivot we took in the developer division is how can we have tool sets that are beloved and used by any developer, no matter what platform they’re using.”
But Microsoft isn’t (only) giving away Visual Studio Code for the sake of generosity. It’s a key part of Microsoft’s strategy in the cloud wars, where it’s battling rivals like Google Cloud, IBM, and especially the dominant Amazon Web Services.
Under Nadella, Microsoft has worked hard to revamp its appeal to developers, as it spent $7.5 billion to acquire code-hosting service GitHub, added support for Linux on the Microsoft Azure platform, and generally being nicer to the open source community. The more developers it can win over, Microsoft believes, the more developers will give its cloud a shot. And Visual Studio code is the friendly, open face of that battle.
“That perception change is very important for us to win in the cloud business,” Liuson said. “Visual Studio is one of our lightning rods.”
The market has been looking for cloud-based code editors as well, as developers need somewhere to write and debug code. Because Visual Studio Code is open source, it’s been able to spread especially quickly because anyone can download it and try it out.
How Visual Studio Code started
Visual Studio Code has its roots in the more traditional Visual Studio, which first released in 1997 as a bundle of existing Microsoft tools for programmers. Where the flagship Visual Studio product is more suited for enterprise developers — it offers more configuration options, for instance, and can help set up and manage heavy-duty databases — Visual Studio Code is streamlined, to make it equally appealing to students and individual programmers.
Microsoft distinguished engineer Erich Gamma gets much of the credit for starting Visual Studio Code. First hired at Microsoft in 2011 as a web programmer, he came from IBM where he helped make tools for programmers using the Java programming language.
At the time he joined, Microsoft was in the final years of CEO Steve Ballmer’s reign, and the tech industry still thought of the tech titan as only caring about its home-built programming languages, like C# (pronounced “C-sharp”) and .NET (pronounced “dot-net”).
Gamma quietly started building a code editor that went beyond those Microsoft-created languages and enterprise-standard languages like Java, and into something that any developer could use for any project. It would be fast, and make it easy for developers to be productive and debug their code in whatever language they chose. Moreover, he wanted it to be available on Windows, Mac, and Linux, to give it the broadest appeal possible.
Once Nadella took over as CEO in 2014, the project took on increased relevance, as Microsoft looked for ways to prove its new commitment to the open source community. Gamma’s new code editor, which worked on any operating system with any programming language, even if it’s not Microsoft’s, was an ideal candidate.
“It’s important for Microsoft to cull that perception gap and show that we understand and know how to operate in open source,” Liuson said. “Visual Studio Code has helped tremendously.”
In 2015, it was released with much fanfare at the company’s annual Microsoft Build conference for programmers. There was some skepticism — Microsoft hadn’t been known for giving things away for free, let alone software for the Mac and Linux — but it very quickly became a hit.
“What’s interesting is the way it has taken off,” Rob Lauer, senior manager at developer technology company Progress, told Business Insider. “A lot of it has to do with the Microsoft name. The open source community has been pleased with Microsoft’s actions…They’ve done everything right so far.”
A ‘leaner, meaner kind of code editing machine’
Liuson says she sees all types of developers using Visual Studio Code, from students to high-ranking employees at companies like Google and Amazon. She also says it’s common for companies to use Visual Studio Code when they need to show something off in an on-stage demo.
“Something like Visual Studio Code is something you would use to write code for a variety of different types of projects,” KellyAnn Fitzpatrick, industry analyst at RedMonk, told Business Insider. “You can access Visual Studio Code so easily whether you’re a developer working for a corporation, or if you’re learning to code yourself, it’s very easy to access and it’s free.”
David Walsh, senior software engineer at Mozilla, uses Visual Studio Code for not only writing, reviewing, and debugging code, but also taking notes “because it’s always open and always there.” He started using it because he heard about it on Twitter. He had problems with some code editors he used in the past, which were often slow or would freeze up on him. But he found Visual Studio Code to be fast and reliable.
“I gave Visual Studio Code a shot,” Walsh said. “Within a couple hours of using it, I decided I wasn’t going to go back to anyone else.”
Users also praise the customizablity and flexibility of Visual Studio Code. It doesn’t come with many features built-in, but users can download extensions to add or change whatever they’d like about it. Those plugins can even add support for new languages, new databases, or even simply new color schemes. Because Microsoft released Visual Studio Code as open source, it’s easy for any developer to get a deep look at how it all works, and write whatever integration they’d like.
“It’s a leaner, meaner kind of code editing machine,” Lauer said. “What I really think sets Visual Studio Code apart is it’s really easy to build a plugin or extension on top of Visual Studio Code. You can use any language with it.”
Bob Davis, principal product manager at Red Hat, works closely with Microsoft to keep its Visual Studio Code extensions working well. Red Hat developers Visual Studio Code extensions that let developers use its versions of the Java programming language and Kubernetes software container infrastructure, among other things.
“That’s what drives our desire to be useful for VS Code developers,” Davis told Business Insider. “What’s interesting is if you look at the different tools we have available, they show that there’s a broad diversity of different developer types. One of the things people always ask is what do developers want.”
‘When VS Code came along, I was like, oh dang’
Experts say Visual Studio Code became popular because it spread through positive word of mouth, rather than any great flex of Microsoft’s marketing muscle.
“When I ask people about Visual Studio Code, they are delighted both by how flexible it is in terms of language, as well as how fast it is,” Fitzpatrick said. “Visual Studio Code has a reputation for being super fast.”
For example, Cassidy Williams, instructor and developer at React Training, decided to “hop on the train” when co-workers started using Visual Studio Code. She liked that it’s fast, easy to add extensions and that it’s available as open source.
“When VS Code came along, I was like, oh dang,” Williams said. “This is different. It’s not like the other editors. It really has a smooth quick interface. It’s very extensible. It feels more powerful because it doesn’t feel like it was hacked together like a browser wrapper of some kind.”
Meanwhile, other code editors often tend to be built around a specific language – for example, Java developers write code on Eclipse, a more traditional IDE.
“One of the things VS Code did early on as part of their design to make it really easy for VS Code to be useful for developers to use a variety of languages, which is something we’re seeing more and more,” Davis said. “Developers are not just working in a single language.”
Being ‘close to developers’
Increasingly, cloud giants are working to cater more to developers, as they are the ones who are most likely going to use their products. This has proven core to Microsoft’s appeal, as its Azure cloud platform holds on to its strong second-place position in the cloud wars.
Amazon has its own initiatives in this space: In 2016, Amazon Web Services acquired Cloud9, a similarly lightweight code editor. At the same time, it has a reputation of its own that it doesn’t contribute as much open source code back to the community as its massive Amazon Web Services cloud arm consumes. While Amazon has made some strides in improving that perception, experts believe that Microsoft has successfully made a strong case to developers.
“Microsoft is really good at being close to developers,” Craig Lowery, vice president analyst at Gartner, told Business Insider. “Their strategy has worked so well with Microsoft Azure.”
To keep developers on its side, Microsoft keeps a close eye on what developers say about Visual Studio Code. At the beginning of each release cycle, the team will write up a backlog based on the feedback they see and invite people to comment on these issues.
“The community feels appreciated, heard, responded to,” Liuson said. “That’s what’s causing the community to collect on GitHub and work with us on the product. We’re thankful with developers who contribute code.”
Microsoft also “dogfoods” Visual Studio Code, meaning that every day, Gamma’s team at Microsoft uses the most recent version of the software to do their work. That’s a potential leg up in making sure that it works well on all platforms.
“There’s no better dog food than writing your web code on something built on web code,” Walsh, the Mozilla engineer, said.
But there may be no larger factor in Visual Studio Code’s success than the fact that it’s available as open source — proving to the developers that are Microsoft’s most important demographic that it practices what it preaches when it comes to being more open.
“The Microsoft team really hit it out of the park,” Williams, the React Training developer, said. “By making it open source and backed by Microsoft, it had both the credibility of Microsoft and the credibility of being community oriented..they just really perfected the art of the editor.”