A Greatest-hits Set of User-interface Tools
By Mike Riley
The World Wide Web brought about tremendous positive, forward-thinking changes in the world of computing. The Web provided the means to access any number of servers in a standard browsing fashion. Unfortunately, this common-denominator approach had the downside of reducing every browser experience back to the days of 3270 dumb terminals. Especially lacking were the rich GUI controls and widgets many Windows users were accustomed to seeing.
Fortunately, though, with the advent of Web Services, rich user interfaces will be back in style, as the ability to transact with cross-platform servers around the world is married with rich Windows client interfaces. Infragistics is a company that resulted from the merger of ProtoView Development Corporation and Sheridan Software Systems Inc. That means Infragistics essentially has been in the Windows GUI widget business for nearly 20 years and has been at the forefront of Windows component development since the early days of COM. Infragistics product UltraSuite 3.0 represents a culmination of Infragistics best GUI widgets, updated for today s XP-oriented Windows design styles. Think of UltraSuite as a boxed set of an artist s greatest hits.
A Suite of Components
UltraSuite contains Infragistics extensive library of COM-based user-interface controls more than 45 in all. The product either can be ordered on CD or purchased and downloaded over the Internet. Regardless of which distribution mechanism you select, you must activate it over the Internet before you can use it. This is becoming a popular trend in software licensing today, and, with the release of Windows XP, software activation certainly will become a standard part of installation. However, unlike Windows XP, Infragistics products require users to establish an account and provide personal details (name, address, e-mail address, etc.) during the activation and registration process.
Each component within the suite is amazingly flexible and provides access to nearly every design property imaginable. The product includes helpful, easy-to-follow VB-based tutorials for each product in the suite. Visual C++ and Internet Explorer examples for most of the controls are provided, also. The product s documentation is formatted in Microsoft HTML Help and is integrated conveniently into the context-sensitive help of the Visual Studio 6.0 IDEs. The most significant components are categorized into five Infragistics product offerings: ActiveTreeView, Data Explorer, ScheduleX, UltraGrid, and UltraToolBars, plus an additional 16 components exclusively available in the UltraSuite collection. Sold separately, this library of components would cost more than $1,500. Each of the major components is still available for purchase separately.
The ActiveTreeView control provides multiple ways to display a hierarchical tree view (see FIGURE 1). Its use is straightforward and provides an easy way to organize data taxonomies visually. Like other UltraSuite components, the ActiveTreeView provides the ability to add icons and to change font size and orientation of the display via clearly defined property sheets.
FIGURE 1: The ActiveTreeView component offers remarkable flexibility by visually representing hierarchical data.
The DataExplorer component provides synchronized access to data for optimal display in tabbed tree views. DataExplorer can be used to direct data into other data-aware components, as well.
ScheduleX offers a look and feel that s identical to the Calendar and Tasks displays in Microsoft Outlook (see FIGURE 2). In addition, ScheduleX can import and export Outlook file data with simple method calls. ScheduleX consists of the Calendar, WeekView, DayView, TaskPad, DateEdit, and TimeEdit controls, each of which is included as a separate ActiveX component.
One of the most interesting and flexible controls is the UltraGrid. Traditional grid displays offer little more than columns and rows of identically formatted content. UltraGrid provides developers the ability to embed buttons, multi-column drop-down lists, and other ActiveX controls within any cell. Nearly every aspect of the presentation color, fills, fonts, icons, indents, rotated text, and row and column height and widths can be modified easily. Alpha levels can be changed to create transition and translucent, watermarked form effects. And because the control is data-aware, data can be preloaded, filtered, and sorted automatically to provide adaptable client-side data views. Then, the grids can be grouped visually to provide expanding tree views within data tables. Grid data also can be searched using different search types, such as complete, begins-with, and ends-with queries. The control even includes a print-preview-display function, which is especially helpful because UltraGrid can change visual data representation dramatically. The level of customization capable within this grid component is one of the most extensive I have seen.
The UltraToolBars set of controls is a collection of basic Windows objects updated for the XP generation. These controls have been evolving in the Infragistics family since the first days when Visual Basic consumed third-party Visual Basic Extensions (VBXs). Active Tabs provide the ultimate flexibility in creating tabbed dialog boxes, providing developers with the ability to modify tab height, width, alignment, orientation, style, fore-color, and back-color properties and the ability to add images. The control s events are extensive, also. Menus, toolbars, buttons, and check boxes all can be moved and painted with an XP style. They also adopt a user-defined custom look and feel. Buttons can change their appearance with a mouse rollover, to give forms a more intuitive, modern, responsive look. The transition control provides the ability to transition form backgrounds using 37 different styles. To complete the basic form GUI objects library, the set also includes the ActiveTabs, Resizer, Scroll, Splash, Transition, Option, Command, Check, Frame, Panel, Ribbon, and Splitter components. All of these help developers maintain a consistent look and feel for all their Windows form compositions, and all of these components work as advertised.
Exclusive to the UltraSuite Bundle
Like a greatest-hits set, UltraSuite provides its users with an additional selection that s exclusive to the suite.
FIGURE 2: UltraSuite controls can be embedded into Web pages and easily manipulated using VBScript.
These controls are offered as additional rewards for developers: ComboBox, ColorCombo, Dial scrolling, Font Selector, ImageCombo, Line3D, OLE DB bindable ListBox, Marquee, MaskEdit, Multibutton, Picture, ProgressBar, PropertyBrowser, ScreenPrinter, Shape3D, and Text3D.
Though not nearly as powerful as the major components, these widgets have their place and maintain the high-quality and consistent property selections the featured controls provide.
All components and samples appeared to be bug-free except a Visual C++ Property Browser example that failed with a memory exception when I attempted to execute it. Conversely, the VB version ran without incident.
On the downside, the collection could be prohibitively expensive if a majority of components are not leveraged. Additionally, you could obtain some of the capabilities featured in the package on the Web for free or at a lower cost, but few offer the support and commitment Infragistics provides. This is especially applicable in corporate development environments in which the extra costs toward support and component vendor stability are paramount.
And then there s Microsoft s Visual Studio .NET product that eventually will force these and other ActiveX components into obsolescence, similar to the way VBX controls gave way to OLE Custom Controls (OCXs). Recognizing this issue, Infragistics recently made friends with its customers by combining its COM-based UltraSuite components with its .NET-based NetAdvantage components into the same package. Check out their announcement of this merger at http://www.infragistics.com/corporate/news/053002.asp.
Incidentally, if developers expect to optimize their UltraSuite component-enabled projects on the .NET platform and would like to leverage the .NET enhancements Infragistics has planned for their future .NET components, the product s annual subscription license would be the most cost-effective option to consider.
In summary, the UltraSuite package represents the culminated years of experience and product stability Infragistics can offer developers, most notably advertised in the product s detailed read me file. UltraSuite is certainly not the least expensive component collection on the market, but it is probably the most feature-rich and easy to use.
Mike Riley is a chief scientist with RR Donnelley, one of North America s largest printers. He participates in the company s emerging technology strategies using a wide variety of distributed network technologies. Readers may reach him at mailto:[email protected].
Just the Facts
Infragistics UltraSuite represents the best, most comprehensive and most expensive collection of ActiveX user-interface components available on the market today. It has more than 45 controls, each with extensive properties. On the con side, it s expensive and the free upgrade to .NET-aware components requires subscription purchase.
Windsor Corporate Park
50 Millstone Road
Building 200, Suite 150
East Windsor, NJ 08520
Phone: (800) 231-8588 within the United States; (609) 448-2000 outside the United States.
E-Mail: mailto:[email protected]
Web Site: http://www.infragistics.com/
Price: US$995 for a single-developer license; US$1,495 for an annual subscription (five- and 10-developer license packages are available).