Visual Studio.NET: Dramatic Improvements for Developers

In the last issue, I discussed Microsoft Office and its .NET-oriented successors, all based on the NetDocs technology being developed in Redmond. Microsoft, realizing that third-party support will make or break .NET and that the company must supply more than just a handful of key applications and services, began an educational campaign this past summer. Aimed at bringing developers up to speed with .NET technologies and tools, the plan presents the .NET Framework (discussed here in early November) as the centerpiece. Now Microsoft is continuing its work with the Visual Studio (VS) suite to ensure that developers have the necessary tools to work effectively with this extensive and often confusing technology.

The next iteration of VS is called Visual Studio.NET (VS.NET), and it's due to ship in mid-2001. A thoroughly modern application, VS.NET sports a number of user-interface elements that won't be otherwise widely available until the releases of Office 10 and Whistler. VS.NET follows the wildly successful VS 6.0, which debuted in 1998 with a comprehensive set of tools including Visual Basic (VB), Visual C++, Visual InterDev, Visual J++, Visual FoxPro, and Visual SourceSafe.

VS.NET contains fewer tools than its predecessor: Visual InterDev, J++, and SourceSafe are gone, though C# has been added as a language choice. Each remaining tool's capabilities have been enhanced, however, and Microsoft has made it much, much easier to write mixed-language applications. For example, you might write some parts of a Web service in VB, but other parts in C#.

The most famous member of this suite is Visual Basic.NET (VB.NET), where the core language has been updated substantially and is now more object-oriented, answering a persistent complaint from OOP purists. Microsoft accomplished a key goal in bringing VB forward to the .NET environment because this programming language has more users than any other. Thus VB.NET attains a status of first-class .NET citizen, because it's no longer a rev or two behind other languages. That cheering sound you hear is three million VB users who long ago tired of waiting for the latest features.

Visual C++, the tool of choice for developing commercial-quality Windows applications, presented some compatibility problems with COM and .NET, particularly in creating classes and instantiating objects. JavaScript, a Sun product, suited this type of programming better, but Microsoft and Sun had a bit of a falling out over the language.

So Microsoft created C# (which I think of as "yet another C-like language") to fill the gap. Developers can continue with C++, of course, but they won't be able to take advantage of many new .NET features. C++ users will find it easy to code in C#, which is syntactically similar to C++, and write .NET-compatible "managed" code. C#, like VB, is a first-class .NET citizen that can use all the cool rapid application development (RAD) features in VS.NET, just like VB can. Note that C++ can't.

The best news is that Microsoft has knit the VS.NET suite into a cohesive whole that no longer requires separate solutions with different languages. Instead, you can create a solution—perhaps representing a Windows application, a Web service, or a Web application—and then populate that solution with code from any language, seamlessly mixing and matching. Removing Visual InterDev as a separate application brings new focus to VB as a Web editor, and JScript (Microsoft's version of JavaScript) rises in status and lets developers more easily stitch applications together with scripting code. VS.NET has finally fulfilled the promise of a single programming environment.

But you aren't a developer, you say? Well, the very existence of VS.NET speaks volumes about Microsoft's commitment to .NET. The company has gone to great lengths to ensure that developers have access to information and code as early as possible, even posting VS.NET Beta 1 on the Microsoft Web site. Microsoft says the future of computing begins with VS.NET, and its actions speak even louder than words.

In 2 weeks, I'll discuss some of Microsoft's work in melding client-side applications with server-side services. We'll address MSN Explorer, which gives us a preview of the .NET User Experience; and Passport.NET, Microsoft's prototypical Web service. See you then.

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