Beta Man

'Orcas' Beta a Killer?

An early look at the next Visual Studio shows better tools integration and more features.

Windows Vista was an unusual product release in that Microsoft didn't have an integrated environment for developers to build Vista-enhanced applications. All of the tools were available, some in beta form, but they had yet to be integrated into the Visual Studio IDE for a smooth developer experience.

That's a primary purpose of "Orcas" (now designated Visual Studio 2008), the next version of Visual Studio that's currently available as a community technology preview (CTP) and a beta. Orcas also provides important capabilities in the building of interactive Web applications, creating new Office applications and providing better accessibility to data.

The Orcas beta became available at the beginning of May, and I took a look at it in order to determine if its features are compelling for those developing, testing and maintaining a variety of common enterprise applications.

Microsoft provided the Orcas preview packaged as a Virtual PC image, including the OS, in theory making installation cleaner and easier than it might otherwise be. In fact, it involves a number of large downloads (the base OS, Windows Server 2003, is 1.12GB compressed, and the Orcas image expands to a full 14GB). Once you get the files, however, the installation takes time but goes like clockwork. I ran this image on a 1.6GHz dual-core Pentium 4 with 2GB of RAM, and the overall performance of the VM was sluggish. If possible, I recommend still more memory and a faster multi-core processor for testing out the pre-release versions.

Figure 1
[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 1. Thanks to its familiar look and feel, any regular user of Visual Studio will be able to immediately pick up and use Orcas.

No Surprises
Any regular user of Visual Studio will be able to pick right up and use Orcas productively to develop applications. The environment is the same, and the changes tend to be subtle additions. One thing that's immediately apparent is new menus for Test and Community. The Test menu lets developers define, incorporate and run tests in conjunction with a development project, while the Community menu lets you ask questions of others who participate in community Web sites and answer questions posed by others. It's an interesting way to leverage online the strong developer community Microsoft has built up over the last decade. Other than MSDN and the sponsorship of a couple of niche Web sites, Microsoft has done little to foster online developer interaction. This may be changing.

I've tried out both the ASP.NET AJAX (formerly code-named "Atlas") and the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) tools separately in preview versions, and found them usable but lacking the tight integration that developers expect in Visual Studio tools. I'm happy to say that Orcas largely addresses these integration issues and offers a smoother developer experience.

ASP.NET AJAX provides a set of client-side controls and server-side extenders that make it easy to write Web applications that update data and events asynchronously. Only the data, rather than the entire page, gets updated, potentially making it as fast and smooth as a rich client application.

As for Vista and WPF, Visual Studio not only provides new user interface (UI) designers for building the next generation of applications, but also makes it easy for developers to modify existing applications to deliver the Vista-style user experiences, at least at the basic levels.

Orcas provides Vista-style UI controls as well as a UI builder that addresses the unique requirements of WPF, such as transparency. Developers can also work with XAML, the XML-style declarative language used to create and manipulate user interface components and events within Vista.

Developers can use Visual Studio to build applications that exhibit the Vista "look and feel." A number of the Vista look-and-feel features are available simply by recompiling a legacy Microsoft Foundation Classes (MFC) application. Deeper integration that requires more coding or design work on the part of the developer is also simplified with Visual Studio's integrated support for the Windows Vista native APIs.

Improved Office and Data Integration
I've never been an Office developer, but it's immediately apparent that Orcas makes Office a first-class coding platform. When selecting a new project type, you now have the ability to select one of several Office types, setting up the environment and tools to support Office development. And Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) is now fully integrated into Orcas Professional Edition, so you don't have to go outside your usual Visual Studio tool set to integrate with Office.

The effect is to make Office development much more integrated within Visual Studio, and provide it a greater degree of...well, respect than in the past.

Last, Orcas includes integrated support for the long-awaited Language-Integrated Query (LINQ) features. It incorporates the new language instructions, IntelliSense and debugger support for building in database access and manipulation as a first-class application component.

LINQ integrates data operators into either C# or Visual Basic (initially, it can also be extended to other .NET languages). It extends C# and Visual Basic with native language syntax for queries and provides class libraries to take advantage of these capabilities. More specifically, it allows query expressions to benefit from the rich metadata, compile-time syntax checking, static typing and IntelliSense.

For example, DLINQ incorporates the Table attribute as part of a class definition in order to refer to a database table. The Table attribute has a Name property that you can use to specify the exact name of the database table. What you're doing is creating a programmatic class that mirrors the structure of the database. You then instantiate the class and manipulate the data just as you would data within the object.

The Best Choice
Microsoft has a winning formula in Visual Studio, and Orcas continues that tradition. Any Visual Studio developer will be able to use it immediately to do more things. If there is a fault, it's that Orcas is becoming too big and complex in trying to be the single tool for all Microsoft development. The single-language Express Editions will continue with Orcas (and can also be downloaded as a part of the CTP program), and it may make sense for the company to offer more of these targeted versions.

But today there are few alternatives to using Visual Studio for Windows development, and fewer reasons not to do so. In many ways Orcas represents the state of the art in Windows development, and in development in general, and Microsoft should be reluctant to mess with a proven formula.

About the Author

Peter Varhol is the executive editor, reviews of Redmond magazine and has more than 20 years of experience as a software developer, software product manager and technology writer. He has graduate degrees in computer science and mathematics, and has taught both subjects at the university level.

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