.NET UPDATE--August 7, 2003

Commentary: Next Versions of Visual Studio .NET to Accompany Major Platform Shifts

Beginning with the release of Visual Studio .NET 2003 earlier this year, Microsoft has started to tie its development tool releases to major platform releases. Microsoft released Visual Studio .NET 2003 with Windows Server 2003. The next two versions of the company's server OS will accompany SQL Server 2004 (code-named Yukon) and Longhorn. And if the next few versions of Visual Studio .NET are any indication, we have some exciting advances to look forward to in Microsoft's platform technology.

Visual Studio .Next The next release of Visual Studio .NET, code-named Whidbey, is currently in alpha release, and Microsoft will release it publicly in October at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles. From a developer's perspective, Whidbey is a minor upgrade from Visual Studio .NET 2003, and it will take advantage of technological advances coming in the next version of SQL Server, Yukon. As a platform wave (if you'll pardon the Microsoft speak), Yukon will offer exciting technologies that will directly affect users at every level of the Microsoft food chain. You might have heard that Yukon will form the basis for Windows Future Storage (WinFS), the NTFS-based file system that Microsoft will ship as part of Longhorn, for example. But Yukon doesn't just unify Microsoft's storage technologies. And the database product that will result from this project will make SQL Server more accessible to developers, resulting in more elegant end-user applications and services. One of the biggest advances coming in Yukon is the ability to programmatically access databases and other Yukon features by using any .NET programming language. Today, developers must write low-level T-SQL code to access the database or create components in high-level languages such as Visual Basic or C# that access T-SQL code behind the scenes. Either way, programmers are forced to learn multiple languages --say, Visual Basic (VB) and T-SQL--to efficiently access data, or split projects among multiple developers, each with a specialty in certain areas. This situation has significantly raised the expertise needed to program data-backed applications and services, limiting their deployment. In Yukon, this restriction is gone. Instead of being forced to learn new languages, such as T-SQL, to access the database, developers will be able to use their language of choice to query the database, write stored procedures, and perform other data-related tasks. So if you're writing code in Visual Basic .NET, you'll have new APIs--available to that language--that let you access the database. This way, developers can continue building on their core competencies but get experience in new areas. Suddenly, what was hard is now much easier. Because Yukon is so integrated with .NET, that version of SQL Server will also drop its proprietary front-end tools and give developers a special version of Visual Studio .NET, in the box, that's geared to data access. This change means that users familiar with SQL Server will be able to seamlessly move to the full Visual Studio .NET, and vice versa, lowering the learning curve. Yukon and Visual Studio .NET Whidbey will ship by mid-2004, Microsoft says.

Visual Studio .Longhorn Looking further ahead, the Orcas release of Visual Studio .NET will target Longhorn, a wave of products that will include new versions of Windows, Windows Server, Microsoft Office, the Windows .NET Framework, and other products. Most of the primary platform work in Longhorn will occur in the Windows OS, and the new Office version will build on those capabilities and no doubt require Longhorn to run. Microsoft is still being vague about Longhorn, but the company notes that Visual Studio Orcas will support Longhorn features such as "managed interfaces, enhanced UI features, the Longhorn trustworthy computing and security model, new application model, improved communication and collaboration, integrated data storage, and innovations in presentation and media."

Visual Studio .Office In the meantime, we have Visual Studio .NET 2003 and, soon, a new set of development tools for Office 2003 that Microsoft will ship in September as a free add-on for Visual Studio .NET 2003 users. Dubbed Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System 2003, this package lets developers write new types of applications that target Microsoft Excel 2003 and Microsoft Word 2003 by using standard .NET languages. This add-on helps Visual Studio developers move seamlessly to Office without having to learn new tools, although this version supports only a few Office 2003 applications and not the whole suite. Applications written for Word and Excel are hosted directly in the task pane area and thus don't get in the user's face or require major UI work. And of course these applications can take advantage of the new .NET features, including an improved security model.

In the end, all of these Visual Studio advances point to a future of .NET managed code strewn across all of the platforms, applications, and services we access daily. Microsoft might have backed off of its notion that .NET should be center of its platform strategy, but there is little doubt that .NET will exist--and flourish--at every level of the Microsoft ecosystem. For developers, end users, administrators and, yes, Microsoft, this is a good thing.


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