NetAdvantage 2004 Volume 2
A Cornucopia of Presentation Layer Components
By Mike Riley
Designing functional, data-driven .NET applications is hard work. Designing such applications in an aesthetically appealing way is even harder. Luckily for those developers challenged with solving form and function in a way to satisfy - and even excite - end users, Infragistics has harvested its years of component experience to produce a comprehensive package that supports the broad range of Microsoft GUI technologies (see Figure 1).
NetAdvantage 2004 Volume 2 represents a culmination of ActiveX/COM, WinForm, ASP.NET, and Tablet PC presentation layer components that roots extending back to when the company (actually two companies, Sheridan Software and ProtoView Development, which merged in 2000) developed the leading data-aware grid controls and GUI widgets for early versions of Visual Basic.
Figure 1: Designing Web forms with NetAdvantage controls is a breeze. Note the Enable HTML Intellisense menu option to help identify HTML source wrapped inside NetAdvantage code blocks.
Comprehending the number of components delivered in the NetAdvantage bundle would have been an onerous task had it not been for Infragistics' Help Center library application that sits in the system tray (see Figure 2). This advanced help interface provides links to local and remote resources about the NetAdvantage collection, and quickly indoctrinates new developers to the NetAdvantage approach to presentation layer component employment.
What's even more amazing is the wealth of knowledge that is continually updated and shared online via Infragistics' newsgroups and support forums. It would have been ideal to include an optional SOAP or RSS message-based alert system within the Help Center to alert agile developers to new updates, design templates, and tips associated with each component. Still, even in its currently static form, the Help Center is an invaluable tour guide when orienting with the collection for the first time.
Figure 2: The Help Center should be the first utility developers review when exploring the product for the first time.
The NetAdvantage 2004 Volume 2 package ships with more than 100 individual components. The controls that will most interest ASP.NET developers include WebChart, WebDataInput, WebGrid, WebListBar, WebNavBar, WebNavigator, WebSchedule, WebTab, and WebToolbar. Counterparts of these controls exist for the .NET Windows Forms as well as controls specifically designed for the rich client-side experience, such as the WinEditors (a collection of editor buttons and widgets such as progress bars) and WinExplorerBars (including FileExplorer and TaskPanes). Infragistics has also bundled their UltraSuite collection to support legacy Win32 COM-based applications in an almost sentimental way.
The only area of the Microsoft technology user interface spectrum not covered by the NetAdvantage suite is the mobile device arena. Custom controls for the Windows Mobile and Microsoft Mobile Internet Toolkit are conspicuously absent in an otherwise complete collection. Perhaps the challenge to wedge these rich controls into the claustrophobic confines of a mobile device eroded the potential benefit they could have provided. Regardless, it's a challenge that Infragistics may need to address in the future as wireless Pocket PCs and smartphones continue to proliferate throughout the digital communication landscape.
One of the slickest presentation tool additions to the NetAdvantage 2004 Volume 2 release is the incredibly easy-to-use Quick Design tool (see Figure 3) specifically designed to facilitate the look and feel of Infragistics' Web form controls. Gone are the days of cycling through changing property attributes, saving the changes, and running the page to review the impact of those changes. The Quick Design Tool provides access and immediate feedback to all the attributes publicly exposed by a NetAdvantage Web form control.
Additionally, preset design templates (over 25 variants ship with the product) that establish the look and behavior of the Infragistics Web controls can be applied and saved in XML format to share with other NetAdvantage users. Unfortunately, the Quick Design Tool only executes within the Visual Studio.NET environment, limiting the tool to licensed VS.NET users. Perhaps Infragistics or one of its community members can author a standalone designer to allow color-coordinated graphic designers the ability to export these XML description files for import by color-challenged programmers.
Figure 3: The Infragistics Quick Design tool allows developers to immediately render, save, and apply design attributes to Web controls.
Another helpful tool of note is the Infragistics .NET Project Upgrade Utility (see Figure 4). Any developer who has had the painful experience of manually searching and replacing all the changes of a revised version control number and any related dependencies will heave a sigh of relief when executing this long overdue helper application. The utility addresses an obvious deficiency in Microsoft's approach to component revision control that hopefully will be addressed in a future version of VS.NET.
Figure 4: The .NET Project Upgrade Utility will save developers migrating from an older version of NetAdvantage countless hours in search and replace namespace dependency changes.
The product is sold in three different license configurations. The least expensive option ships with only the components. The mid-tier price includes an annual subscription service that includes automatic updates (both major and minor) throughout the year. The most expensive option includes the subscription service, priority support, and the actual C# source code for all the components! This option may be of most interest to the discerning large enterprise ASP.NET developer.
Some Web form components have limited functionality in non-Microsoft browsers.
The Quick Design tool provides excellent on-the-fly WYSIWYG rendering of design element changes, dramatically expediting the design template creation process.
The Quick Design tool can only be used within the VS.NET IDE, potentially restricting its use by color-coordinated graphic page designers who don't have a VS.NET license.
The Help Center summarizes the entire NetAdvantage package into a fast and easy to use way to access everything the collection has to offer.
The Help Center doesn't visually notify users when documentation or other references have been updated remotely on Infragistics' Web site.
In summary, sophisticated ASP.NET developers should acquire NetAdvantage 2004 Volume 2 without hesitation. Not only will this collection provide them with tremendous design flexibility and professional, dynamic Web application user interfaces, it will also bring back a sense of creative adventure as developers iterate through and implement the numerous design possibilities afforded by these flexible, easy to use, and powerful controls. Good stuff!
Web Site: http://www.infragistics.com
Price: US$495 to US$995