In-Depth

Will Vista's New Look Attract Developers?

Adoption of Windows Presentation Foundation key to delivery of 3-D applications.

While Microsoft has shipped the final version of Vista for business users and developers, it remains to be seen if the beauty of the long-awaited operating system's Aero graphical interface goes more than skin deep.

What will help make that determination will be the level of acceptance by developers of Vista's underlying Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) graphics subsystem, formerly code-named Avalon. With its ability to allow developers to create applications that blend 3-D graphics, animation and video all under one programming roof, as well as its promise of helping application designers and developers collaborate more effectively, WPF's potential appears great.

But it could take the majority of developers a couple of years to first buy into it and then deliver the goods. While Microsoft officials guesstimate that more than half of its 1,200 or so early adopters are actively engaged in creating applications that fully exploit the splashy graphics of Aero, many other developers say their first Vista applications will focus on compatibility and stability. The pretty interfaces can wait, they say, for the second release of those applications over the next couple of years.

"I think for the most part you will find people will start exploiting the GUI of Vista on the second release of their Vista apps. From the developers we talk to, Vista's not going to be a big part of the market in the first half of 2007," says Richard Rabins, president of Alpha Software Inc., a desktop database developer in Burlington, Mass.

"I really like Vista -- it's the best Windows I've had. It's stable and secure and I have no issues with things like the User Account Control. But the GUI stuff is not high on my list based on what sort of applications we do," says Phil Stanhope, vice president of technology for Adesso Systems Inc., makers of a development environment for creating applications with inherent distributed capabilities. "If I were doing gaming or entertainment software I might feel more urgency," he says.

Another factor that could throw a handful of nails in Vista's path is the learning curve third-party developers and IT shops must climb before it gains broad adoption, according to some industry observers. The advance in graphics technology between Windows XP and Vista represents the biggest delta in Windows since the transition from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95, they believe.

"Vista's graphical user interface behavior will be a disruptive factor not only for developers who need to learn how to write for it and administrators who need to learn how to manage it, but for users who will need to learn how to work with it. The sooner people start to climb it, the sooner they will get over it," says Will Zachmann, president of Canopus Research in Duxbury, Mass.

Bright Future
At least one skeptical analyst has changed his mind about the impact Vista's new graphical capabilities might have on the application development community. In a recent report, appropriately entitled "Okay, I Get It: Vista's a Cool Application Platform," Forrester Research Inc.'s Ted Shadler said he believes most developers will commit resources to delivering exploitive applications.

"Vista won't immediately convince consumers to upgrade their computers. However, it's now clear that smart application developers and technology product marketers will build killer applications using Vista's advanced graphics and communications technology. The New York Times' Times Reader is the first such application that we have seen," Shadler wrote.

Applications expected over the short term that exploit WPF are few and far between, but they are starting to appear. Besides the New York Times Reader, expected to be available in this year's first quarter, two other major ISVs have promised applications and technologies exploiting Vista's graphical capabilities, including Autodesk Inc. and SolidWorks Corp.

Autodesk has signed a deal to jointly work with Microsoft on integrating its DWF technology with Vista using the XML Paper Specification (XPS), which allows users to view and manage detail-rich design information without the need to download plug-ins. XPS allows CAD users to collaborate with other team members more productively by making Vista's built-in searching capabilities more accessible, according to Autodesk officials. SolidWorks has already shipped what it believes is the first 3-D CAD application for Vista that takes advantage of Vista's graphics capabilities to enhance visual interaction, company officials said.

Figure 1
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Figure 1. Autodesk collaborated with Microsoft to integrate its DWF technology with Vista using the XML Paper Specification ...

Microsoft officials, of course, contend WPF will be broadly successful because it's built from the ground up to serve as more than just eye candy. They are steadfast in their view that the new graphics features developers can weave into enterprise-level applications will result in real productivity gains.

"We think we are delivering a set of new technologies here that allow IT shops and ISVs to build apps across the entire enterprise that can increase the overall productivity of all those workers. The information workers who hunger most for information and data visualization will be the first to embrace them," says Tom Caputo, Microsoft's group product manager for the Windows Vista Partner Team.

Figure 2
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Figure 2. ... So users can view and manage detail-rich design information without plug-ins.

Tim O'Brien, director of the Platform Strategy Group at Microsoft, says nearly 2,000 applications have been registered in the Vista Early Adopter Program, half of which are expected to be available by the end of February. With Vista, he says, ISVs should be able to take advantage of richer functionality to move their existing applications forward, as well as build new software.

"These features are what we call .NET 3.0 from a development standpoint," says O'Brien, explaining that .NET 3.0 finally unites the triumvirate of Windows Communication Foundation (WCF) subsystem, Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) graphics subsystem and Windows Workflow Foundation for building customized workflows.

O'Brien notes that because the .NET 3.0 capabilities can reach down to the Windows XP level, developers can broaden the audience they are selling to. "This can make for an interesting value proposition for ISVs looking to tap into demand for Vista," he adds.

Lag Time
While many ISVs praise the work Microsoft has done with WPF, some say it could be at least another six to eight months before Microsoft delivers the finished versions of all the development tools needed for the technology to realize its full potential. Most importantly, the company needs to deliver WPF support for Visual Studio.

"There's a good news-bad news angle to all this. The good news is the plumbing for WPF is there and working very well. The bad news is, as is typical of Microsoft, the tools are lagging several months behind the plumbing so the full capabilities are not there yet," says Tim Huckaby, CEO of InterKnowlogy Inc., specialists in systems and application architecture and design based in Carlsbad, Calif.

Huckaby's firm is working with The Scripps Research Institute on developing a Vista-based application to further cancer research. Over the past few months he's given a raft of demonstrations showing off the application's sophisticated use of 3-D graphics, which have drawn immediate enthusiasm from developers. That enthusiasm quickly subsides, however, when they realize not all the tools are in place yet.

"I have done the demo to many technical audiences showing them what is underneath the hood. They'll say, 'I want to take that home and do something like that in 3-D.' Then they flail at it for six hours and get angry because the [tools] support just isn't there," Huckaby says.

Figure 3
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Figure 3. SolidWorks for Windows Vista is the first available 3-D CAD application for Vista, according to company officials.

The other critical advantage WPF promises is a cohesive framework in which corporate application designers and developers can collaborate more effectively. In most development environments today, designers hand developers a blueprint for what they want an application to do and how it should look. Too often developers do not have the tools to build what the blueprint calls for. Typically, what results is a hybrid application -- a cross between what designers wanted and the best developers could do.

"One of the biggest challenges of software development has been designers creating compelling user interfaces and then handing them over to developers, and developers saying, 'Well, that's cool-looking but it's hard for me to wire that all up.' The disconnect between the two groups has resulted in sub-optimal apps," Caputo says.

But in the WPF Microsoft has given designers the ability to export their designs to developers through the Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML), which is also incorporated into the company's primary set of development tools, Visual Studio.

"Instead of designers just throwing some Photoshop file over the wall to developers, that they [then] have to recreate as best they can in Visual Studio, developers can now get something with a slick UI. [Developers] can also wire up the appropriate business logic to those elements the designers have in place," Caputo says.

Help appears to be on the way. In late December Microsoft delivered the first betas of four components in its new Expression Studio user experience design and development suite, with plans to ship the remaining three in the second quarter. The objective of all four releases is to make it possible for developers and designers to work together more seamlessly by producing tools that both groups can use collaboratively.

Also in late December the company delivered the first community technology preview (CTP) of what it's now calling the "Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere." WPF/E is meant to provide a cross-platform browser plug-in for delivering media, animation and video content based on Windows Media. The underlying code generated by the Expression design tools is XAML.

"When we engineer types finally get these finished tools, we can work with the black turtlenecks [designers]. Two of the six tools in the Expression series are targeted at the black turtlenecks that will let them do their designs in Visual Studio. The bigger question is, 'Will we be able to pry them off the Adobe type products they love so much?" says InterKnowlogy's Huckaby.
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