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,
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.
[Click on image for larger view.]
|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
[Click on image for larger view.]
|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.
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
"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
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.
[Click on image for larger view.]
|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
"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.
Ed Scannell is the editor of Redmond magazine.