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Say hello to VS .NET, a developer's friend

Microsoft released the production version of Visual Studio .NET, its premier development toolkit, in February of this year.

Microsoft released the production version of Visual Studio .NET, its premier development toolkit, in February of this year. This was after a beta-test period that lasted more than a year at 6,000 customer shops.

By most accounts, Visual Studio .NET (VS .NET) and its accompanying .NET Framework, are definitely ready for prime time. Customers ranging from cosmetics giant L'Oreal to Newport News Shipbuilding and Pacific Life's life insurance division have already adopted VS .NET to create Web-based applications either for internal use or for their own customers. Where VS .NET is the developer's hands-on toolkit, .NET Framework is a set of models to help create XML-based Web services and other types of applications. To get the most out of either, one really needs to use both, according to Microsoft.

Together, VS .NET and the .NET Framework offer an object-oriented development environment for both Web applications and standalone, traditional Windows applications. The promise is application and component reuse, eventually. For now, VS .NET automates many programming tasks that had previously required a lot of manual intercession.

VS .NET and .NET Framework also represent Microsoft's attempt to unify its various development tools and technologies, including Visual Studio, Visual Basic and Visual Interdev. Microsoft's end-goal is to create a development environment that will ultimately meet twin goals. It will be language-agnostic, in that a developer will be able to access and use .NET with any number of languages of choice. And developers will be able to use .NET to create applications no matter what the platform they will ultimately run on -- the Web, mobile devices or traditional Windows environments.

In the meantime, customers seem to really love VS .NET, but caution about retraining and other issues. The upshot seems to be that they believe VS .NET to be most applicable to new development. Many shops seem to want to leave previous generations of code -- including Visual Studio 6.0, the immediate predecessor to VS .NET -- alone for now.

Bill Jones, Jr. is president of the Enterprise Developer's Guild in Charlotte, N.C. and an enthusiastic supporter of VS .NET. "The tool is really great. You're able to do things like inherit forms. This lets you set up a standard form for applications that has all the buttons for things you'll always want to do." Then you can reuse that form for different applications, and extend it with specific new features and functions that are called for in those later applications.

But even Jones says that there's "definitely" a learning curve involved. "Most Visual Basic programmers -- probably around three-quarters -- are procedural coders," he said. To use VS .NET most effectively, developers will need to learn and understand object-oriented technology, concepts and terms. "We did a two-part session on OO speak" at the user group to help get folks up to speed, he explained.

There are many differences between VS .NET and VS 6.0, Jones added, and that also will take some time and training to get used to.

Jones and others suggest that even large and committed Microsoft shops will only gradually move over to VS .NET. "It will become the default development environment for Microsoft customers, but it will take a few years," Jones said. At first most customers will want to use VS .NET for new applications, then will start to revamp VS 6.0 and other older applications as major rewrites are needed due to changing business requirements, he said.

Rockford Lhotka, technology evangelist at Magenic Technologies in Minneapolis, is a VS .NET beta user who said he "loves" the tool. Magenic is a consultancy that uses only Microsoft tools and technologies. "If you're going to create .NET apps, small or large, then you'll probably want to use Visual Studio .NET," he said. "But if you're intending to create Java or Unix applications, then VS .NET doesn't help you at all."

For their part, Java programmers would find many familiar concepts in .NET -- but Microsoft doesn't yet support the Java language and, given the legal wrangling between Microsoft and Sun, nobody's holding their breath that it ever will. So for now they're two separate development environments, and large companies may find themselves using both for different types of applications.

Part of this is a religious argument over which programming environment is "better" or at least more familiar, part relates to which operating systems and servers are in use at any particular customer shop, and part has to do with economics. Microsoft backers claim that there are more programmers familiar with Microsoft tools and technologies, and so the costs of hiring and training are less expensive in the Microsoft world than in the Sun world.

In the end, though, VS .NET may not be right for even every Microsoft user -- at least not right away. "I would really love to use it," said James Foxall, vice president of TigerPaw Software in Bellevue, Neb., which sells customer relationship management packages written in Visual Basic 6.0. "But we've had to put off moving to .NET because we have too much of a code base to move right now. We're waiting for improved migration tools," he explained. Although Microsoft does provide different tools to help move some older code over, he says there are just too many "incompatibilities" between the two environments to make it feasible right now.

"They've ripped the rug out from under all that [old VB] code," Foxall said. "We'd be starting over from square one."


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