List & Label 12
A Complete Reporting Solution
By Anand Narayanaswamy
If you asked me to name one factor that is totally unavoidable in the development of a .NET application, I would undoubtedly answer reporting. Reporting has become part and parcel of both Windows and Web-based applications. It is commonly implemented with database-oriented applications, where administrators need to extract user-specific information daily, weekly, or monthly.
Even though Visual Studio 2005 includes a separate tool for generating reports (Crystal Reports), developers were looking for a tool with advanced functionalities that not only can provide more features, but also simplify the coding work. List & Label 12 from Combit is an advanced piece of software with which developers can equip their applications with reports, forms, lists, diagrams, labels, serial mails, export functionalities, and mail merges all with just a few lines of code.
I installed the product on a system with 512 MB of RAM. The whole installation process took less than two minutes to complete. Accompanying the CD package, the vendor provides the required serial number, product key, and companion documents. With the help of the product, you can add classic printing options, intelligent preview, and comprehensive export functions. By integrating List & Label 12, you can provide your end users with the ability to create custom printing projects or to add to existing ones, which will add considerable value to your application. You can seamlessly integrate the product in Visual Studio 2005 and tweak its functionalities using the Properties window. The designer in List & Label 12 includes many new features compared to the previous versions of the product (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: The List & Label designer in action.
An interesting feature of the designer is that it includes a Report container, which allows any sequence of tables, charts, and crosstabs (see Figure 2). I found that the vendor has developed the designer as per the guidelines set by Microsoft for the development of Graphical User Interface (GUI) applications. The product comes with built-in support for digital signatures, which I am sure provide added security to your .NET applications. Some of the other unique features of the product include fixed barcode line width, new icon styles, an improved user interface, HTML export, revamped label formats, and the implementation of color gradients. You can redistribute the designer to your end users without any restrictions, and it is available in 15 languages (this feature is available only in the Professional Edition).
Figure 2: Crosstab in action.
You can develop flexible reporting solutions with the help of a database independence feature included with the product. This means that it is not necessary for your data to be in a database. It can be stored even in XML files, which will definitely speed up the time required for generating reports. The product consists of different DLLs and can be easily distributed with your application. For instance, if you are implementing the product using Visual Studio 2005, you should distribute the listlabel12VS2005.dll file found inside the Program Files\combit\LL12\Redistributable Files directory of the installed drive.
One of the unique features of the product is that your customer need not have to install any special database drivers on their system for using the reports developed with the product. I found that applications developed using the product ran comparatively fast because the database driver did not have to load twice for loading reports generated with the product. Moreover, all the pages are directly passed to the Windows spooling system; hence, the consumption of system resources during printing is small. Another interesting feature of the product is that you need only one common project file, even if you use different databases such as Sybase, SQL Server, Access, or Oracle. You can make use of various List & Label Language Kits, which allows you to modify the complete user interface to other languages, even during the execution of the project. This is a nice attempt by the vendor to localize projects.
It was very easy to work with the product; I only needed to finish three simple steps to implement the required functionalities in a .NET application. In addition, the product ships with over 2,000 label templates of well known producers. You can also individually define the starting label on the sheet, printing sequence, and direction during printing. An important feature of the product is that it ships with a new barcode type called Serial Shipping Container Code (SSCC), which is becoming more popular in the logistics industry. The product supports a range of development environments (view a list at http://en.combit.net/reporting_tool/page1170.aspx). Moreover, you can integrate other environments depending upon your requirements.
One minor issue happened when I failed to properly install Web Reporting Samples because the second part of the installation wizard displayed the steps in the German language, even though I had selected English as the language when I started the process (I also found that certain items on the designer have been spelled in German instead of English). If left unresolved, this certainly will cause confusion among users. However, the vendor resolved the issue by implementing corrective measures immediately after I informed them about the problem. I m impressed by the quick support provided by Combit; they even run a Web-based newsgroup at http://en.combit.net/page1075.aspx, which allows customers to directly interact with the development team, as well as stay informed about problems faced by other customers.
One of the significant improvements in version 12 of the product is that HTML export now uses CSS tags for table frames. Although export using Excel is now capable of making one worksheet per page, Text data export can now produce Unicode files. Moreover, digital signature support is now available for Multi Tiff, PDF, and Text files. Even if you add or remove a field from the database, you don t have to recreate the report. You can also save reports with real data as PDF files, which enables you to supply reports in files to external organizations instead of hard copies. You can download from http://en.combit.net/page1124.aspx a complete list of all the features included with the product, as well as other supporting documents.
The product ships with comprehensive documentation in the form of quick starts, PDF reference manuals, and more than 100 sample applications for various programming languages, ranging from COBOL to .NET, which can be accessed from the Start menu. The product also ships with many sample applications that are new to version 12. From my point of view, the vendor should provide the required documentation as a single file in HTML Help format rather than distributing several pieces of PDF files. I would also suggest they provide the documentation in hard copy format along with the CD package. The vendor should also prepare a handy step-by-step guide for getting started with the product, as beginners will sometimes find it difficult to follow the steps outlined in the current documentation.
Those minor drawbacks aside, List & Label 12 is a complete reporting solution that can be employed while developing advanced .NET applications to produce robust and powerful products for your end users.
Anand Narayanaswamy, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP), works as an independent consultant and runs NetAns Technologies (http://www.netans.com), which provides Web hosting services based in Trivandrum, India. Anand also works as a technical editor lead for http://ASPAlliance.com. He runs http://www.Learnxpress.com, http://Dotnetalbum.com, and http://Csharpfaq.com. Anand is the author of Community Server Quickly (Packt Publishing). Find out more about him at http://www.visualanand.net or e-mail him at mailto:[email protected].
Web Site: http://www.en.combit.net
Price: Standard Edition, US$582.33; Professional Edition, US$962.94