Microsoft & .NETASPSimplified Development Tools-The Microsoft Express Products

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Over the last couple of years, I’ve had discussions with colleagues about the fact that the development tools are getting more and more complex. Granted, you do a lot more with the tools and most of what you can do has gotten simpler; however, when you start digging into the menus, dialogs, and other items it is easy to get overwhelmed quickly. I have argued that I believe the average developer doesn’t use over 50% of the items, features, or other settings in a mainstream IDE. When you look at Visual Studio or even just a product like Visual Basic, the argument that the IDEs are packed to the point of overwhelming is even easier to make.

More core to the discussion I’ve had with colleagues is the need for newbies and novices to have a much simpler tool. We’ve stated an uncountable number of times that Microsoft needs to re-release Visual Basic 3.0 for the novice or hobbyist who doesn’t need to build enterprise-level applications, but rather just wants to learn the basics of programming so they can build simple, personal applications. I’ve even mentioned to people at Microsoft that they should re-release Visual Basic 3.

Nobody at Microsoft wanted to consider a re-release of VB 3.0; however, about a year ago I was privy to a secret. Microsoft was developing a version of Visual Basic aimed at novices and non-programmers. I was even in a demo that used a copy of the software. Not only were they working on a version for Visual Basic, but they were working on tools centering on Web development, such as C#, J#, C++, and SQL Server.

These were going to be targeted at “hobbyists, enthusiasts, and students” rather than at hardcore developers. Many of the issues I had been discussing with colleagues were to be addressed in these very products. The menus would be scaled back to the important stuff. The extra windows and complex settings would be removed. The help would be improved to really focus on someone learning to develop. Most importantly, the number of sample applications—real-world, productive samples—would be increased and incorporated more into the product. Finally, I learned that they would be priced aggressively because this market was not one that would spend large amounts of money on a development tool.

That was what I was told last year.

Enter Express

At TechEd in May in San Diego, Microsoft announced a new high-end version of Visual Studio, called Visual Studio Team System. I covered this version in the article “Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 Team System—Not Just For Developers!

Today, Microsoft removed the cloak of secrecy from the products that are expanding Visual Studio the other direction—to more simplified versions. More specifically, Microsoft announced six new Express products aimed at hobbyists, students, and non-professional developers. These are:

  • Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition
  • Visual Basic 2005 Express Edition
  • Visual C# 2005 Express Edition
  • Visual J# 2005 Express Edition
  • Visual C++ 2005 Express Edition
  • SQL Server Express Edition

In addition to announcing these products, Microsoft also stated that betas would be available for download by the end of the week from the following sites:

The express products can be categorized into three areas:

For doing Web development, Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition is the tool to use. It will allow the development of Web applications using VB, C#, or J#. More specifically, it will allow the creation of ASP 2.0 applications. Because ASP 2.0 is in beta, if you use this product today, you will not be able deploy your applications. Once the product is released (and possibly when beta 2 is released), you then will be able to deploy. One great feature of this product is that it does not require IIS to test your applications. Rather, it has a built-in server that can be used.

The second area of Express products centers on the development of Windows applications. The Visual Basic, Visual C#, Visual J#, and Visual C++ products will allow you to create Windows forms applications as well as console applications and class libraries. These products are simplified versions of their Visual Studio 2005 counterparts. This means that they will be easier to use. This ease of use, however, comes at the cost of advanced features. As with Visual Studio 2005, these products also produce programs that run on the .NET Framework 2.0. This beta version of this framework will install along with the beta products.

The third area of focus within the line of Express products is the area of databases. SQL Server Express Edition is a version of the SQL Server database. It is a complete database product that replaces Microsoft’s MSDE database product. This is a simplified version of SQL Server, so it is appropriate only for small-scale usage. Unlike the other express products, Microsoft has announced that this product will be free to use and to redistribute.

In addition to being easy to use, Microsoft has made a couple of other statements regarding the Express products. One statement is that they will be easy to obtain. They plan to include Express products with computer books as well as make them available though other channels. Although they haven’t announced pricing on the development products (other than SQL Server Express Edition), they have stated that the cost will be kept low to make them easy to acquire. When asked if the products would be free, the answer has been, “No, they are not free but are very low cost.”

The Importance of Starter Kits

The Visual Studio product managers emphasized one area that they are focusing heavily in regard to the Express products. This is the area of Starter Kits. In the past couple of years, a number of Starter Kits have been produced and successfully released by Microsoft and others. A Starter Kit is primarily a full-fledged example application along with some documentation. The program can be used as is, or customized to a person’s likes.

With the Express products, Microsoft is looking for the creation of thousands of such Starter Kits ranging from creating a screen saver to creating a video library that can tap into Amazon to pull down the latest cover images and other information. The Express Editions are expected to ship with a number of Starter Kits.

The Official Release

The Express Products are betas. Just like Visual Studio 2005, they are not ready to be used for production work. Rather, they have been released so you can take a look at them and see what they can do. The official release is expected to coincide with Visual Studio 2005. Microsoft is currently stating that this is expected in the first half of 2005.

First Thoughts on the Products

In a separate article, I will present a closer look at one of the Express products by walking you through the installation and first time use of Visual C# Express Edition.

My first impression of the product was that it truly did appear to be simpler than the other versions of Visual Studio; however, I don’t know that it goes to the level of “easy-to-use” that I would have hoped. It is, however, just a beta product at this time, so maybe it will be even easier to use by the time it officially releases.

The installation of the product is relatively easy. It does, however, take several steps through several dialogs. Most of the questions during installation are easy to answer. Once installed, the program is easy to start up. From there, however, things get a little shaky.

The main startup screen (see Figure 1) is simple and crisp. The information on it is presented in a well-organized manner and includes lots of links to helpful tutorials and starting points.

Figure 1: The Visual C# Express Edition Start Up Window.

If you click on one of the links, you will be presented with information that is generally easy to follow. After this, however, is where the first problem could occur.

If you want to go back to the main page as shown in Figure 1, you may have a problem. There is no intuitive way to return to that page. The primary audience for this product may have a hard time figuring this out.

From the perspective of someone who has been using Visual C#, it is obvious that this is a much simpler version. The clutter that now inundates the menus of Microsoft products is gone. Only the more important menu items exist in this product. Also simplified is the selection of products to create.

While being uncluttered can be a good thing, it also can be a bad thing. Whereas developers are used to windows that slide in and out and can be tacked down, hobbyists and non-programmers are not going to be as familiar with these paradigms. In some cases, a little clutter can make a product easier to use.

The addition of Starter Kit products into the product should make it easier for the non-programmer to tap into these added resources. The inclusion of documentation with them is also a boon. Unfortunately, typos and broken code in the beta could be a bust for novices who are trying to use the information. The Screen Saver starter kit (documentation shown in Figure 2) had at least one critical typo in the code as well as other typos that could derail a novice.

Figure 2: The Screen Saver Starter Kit Documentation Page.

The Express tools still require that you program. As such, non-programmers will have to learn the programming language to really customize or create an application. There is simply no way around that. While these products seem like a scaled down versions of the other Visual Studio products, it seems to me that the answer of a “programming” tool for hobbyists may be better built from the ground up with a programming language that is more elementary.

Getting the Products

The betas for the Express Editions will be available from the Microsoft Web site. The Express Editions can be downloaded now from

The Express Editions are simplified versions of the other versions of Visual Studio 2005. This means that programs created in these editions should be completely compatible with the other editions. Programs created with the full versions of Visual Studio 2005 should load into the Express Editions; however, any advanced features may not be accessible. You cannot, however, user Express Edition projects in older versions of Visual Studio

In Conclusion

Microsoft is working hard to expand the Visual Studio product line. With Team System, they are expanding into the enterprise and providing robust tools for hardcore developers doing large-scale solutions development. Equally important, they are working to provide simpler products for the hobbyist, student, and other non-professional developer who doesn’t want to invest a lot of money and who doesn’t need the complexity of the standard development tools. While the Express tools are not as easy to use as I would like them to be, they are a move in the right direction.

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