Simplified Development Tools�The Microsoft Express Products

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had discussions with colleagues about the fact that the development tools are getting more and more complex. Granted, you do a lot more with the tools and most of what you can do has gotten simpler; however, when you start digging into the menus, dialogs, and other items it is easy to get overwhelmed quickly. I have argued that I believe the average developer doesn’t use over 50% of the items, features, or other settings in a mainstream IDE. When you look at Visual Studio or even just a product like Visual Basic, the argument that the IDEs are packed to the point of overwhelming is even easier to make.

More core to the discussion I’ve had with colleagues is the need for newbies and novices to have a much simpler tool. We’ve stated an uncountable number of times that Microsoft needs to re-release Visual Basic 3.0 for the novice or hobbyist who doesn’t need to build enterprise-level applications, but rather just wants to learn the basics of programming so they can build simple, personal applications. I’ve even mentioned to people at Microsoft that they should re-release Visual Basic 3.

Nobody at Microsoft wanted to consider a re-release of VB 3.0; however, about a year ago I was privy to a secret. Microsoft was developing a version of Visual Basic aimed at novices and non-programmers. I was even in a demo that used a copy of the software. Not only were they working on a version for Visual Basic, but they were working on tools centering on Web development, such as C#, J#, C++, and SQL Server.

These were going to be targeted at “hobbyists, enthusiasts, and students” rather than at hardcore developers. Many of the issues I had been discussing with colleagues were to be addressed in these very products. The menus would be scaled back to the important stuff. The extra windows and complex settings would be removed. The help would be improved to really focus on someone learning to develop. Most importantly, the number of sample applications—real-world, productive samples—would be increased and incorporated more into the product. Finally, I learned that they would be priced aggressively because this market was not one that would spend large amounts of money on a development tool.

That was what I was told last year.

Enter Express

At TechEd in May in San Diego, Microsoft announced a new high-end version of Visual Studio, called Visual Studio Team System. I covered this version in the article “Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 Team System—Not Just For Developers!

Today, Microsoft removed the cloak of secrecy from the products that are expanding Visual Studio the other direction—to more simplified versions. More specifically, Microsoft announced six new Express products aimed at hobbyists, students, and non-professional developers. These are:

  • Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition
  • Visual Basic 2005 Express Edition
  • Visual C# 2005 Express Edition
  • Visual J# 2005 Express Edition
  • Visual C++ 2005 Express Edition
  • SQL Server Express Edition

In addition to announcing these products, Microsoft also stated that betas would be available for download by the end of the week from the following sites:

The express products can be categorized into three areas:

For doing Web development, Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition is the tool to use. It will allow the development of Web applications using VB, C#, or J#. More specifically, it will allow the creation of ASP 2.0 applications. Because ASP 2.0 is in beta, if you use this product today, you will not be able deploy your applications. Once the product is released (and possibly when beta 2 is released), you then will be able to deploy. One great feature of this product is that it does not require IIS to test your applications. Rather, it has a built-in server that can be used.

The second area of Express products centers on the development of Windows applications. The Visual Basic, Visual C#, Visual J#, and Visual C++ products will allow you to create Windows forms applications as well as console applications and class libraries. These products are simplified versions of their Visual Studio 2005 counterparts. This means that they will be easier to use. This ease of use, however, comes at the cost of advanced features. As with Visual Studio 2005, these products also produce programs that run on the .NET Framework 2.0. This beta version of this framework will install along with the beta products.

The third area of focus within the line of Express products is the area of databases. SQL Server Express Edition is a version of the SQL Server database. It is a complete database product that replaces Microsoft’s MSDE database product. This is a simplified version of SQL Server, so it is appropriate only for small-scale usage. Unlike the other express products, Microsoft has announced that this product will be free to use and to redistribute.

In addition to being easy to use, Microsoft has made a couple of other statements regarding the Express products. One statement is that they will be easy to obtain. They plan to include Express products with computer books as well as make them available though other channels. Although they haven’t announced pricing on the development products (other than SQL Server Express Edition), they have stated that the cost will be kept low to make them easy to acquire. When asked if the products would be free, the answer has been, “No, they are not free but are very low cost.”

The Importance of Starter Kits

The Visual Studio product managers emphasized one area that they are focusing heavily in regard to the Express products. This is the area of Starter Kits. In the past couple of years, a number of Starter Kits have been produced and successfully released by Microsoft and others. A Starter Kit is primarily a full-fledged example application along with some documentation. The program can be used as is, or customized to a person’s likes.

With the Express products, Microsoft is looking for the creation of thousands of such Starter Kits ranging from creating a screen saver to creating a video library that can tap into Amazon to pull down the latest cover images and other information. The Express Editions are expected to ship with a number of Starter Kits.

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