Microsoft executive Paul Maritz opened the eight Professional Developers Conference (PDC) Tuesday with the announcement that attendees would be receiving the first alpha release of Visual Studio.NET ("Visual Studio Dot Net", also known as Visual Studio 7) and the initial developer's preview of the Microsoft .NET Framework. These next generation previews are the company's first developer tools that will enable the Microsoft .NET initiative that was announced last month. And the company says that they will provide developers with the ability to develop Web services using the simple drag and drop paradigm enjoyed by Visual Basic programmers today.

"Delivering this software to developers today is an important milestone in helping developers build next-generation Internet software and services," Maritz said. "By creating a unified platform where devices and services cooperate with each other, Microsoft is unleashing a new wave of developer opportunity and creativity that will help developers reach a new level of power and simplicity."

The .NET Framework is the heart of Microsoft .NET, Maritz says. It provides a language-neutral development and execution environment for building and running the Web services that will power Microsoft .NET. With its support for the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), the .NET Framework extends two of Microsoft's most popular technologies, Active Server Pages (ASP) and COM, the Component Object Model.

Meanwhile, Visual Studio.NET includes updates to Visual Basic, Visual C++, and Visual FoxPro, while providing support for a new language called C# ("see sharp"). Notably absent from this list, of course, are Visual InterDev, the company's previous Web site editor, and Visual J++, which supported Java. Sources tell me that the Visual InterDev editing tools will be available from any Visual Studio.NET application, but the fate of J++ is still somewhat of a mystery. Visual Studio.NET provides a single user interface for all of its applications, finally realizing the single IDE goal that Microsoft first discussed in late 1996