Microsoft releases Visual Studio LightSwitch: a fascinating product with an uncertain future

Microsoft has released Visual Studio LightSwitch, a rapid application builder for data-centric applications.

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LightSwitch builds Silverlight applications, which may seem strange bearing in mind that the future of Silverlight has been hotly debated since its lack of emphasis at the 2010 Professional Developers Conference. The explanation is either that Silverlight – or some close variant of Silverlight – has a more important future role than has yet been revealed; or that the developer division invented LightSwitch before Microsoft’s strategy shifted.

Either way, note that LightSwitch is a model-driven tool that is inherently well-suited to modification for different output types. If LightSwitch survives to version two, it would not surprise me to see other application targets appear. HTML 5 would make sense, as would Windows Phone.

So LightSwitch generates Silverlight applications, but they do not run on Windows Phone 7 which has Silverlight as its development platform? That is correct, and yes it does seem odd. I will give you the official line on this, which is that LightSwitch is not aimed primarily at developers, but is for business users who run Windows and who want a quick and easy way to build database applications. They will not care or even, supposedly, realise that they are building Silverlight apps.

I do not believe this is the whole story. It seems to me that either LightSwitch is a historical accident that will soon be quietly forgotten; or it is version one of a strategic product that will build multi-tier database applications, where the server is either Azure or on-premise, and the client any Windows device from phone to PC. Silverlight is ideal for this, with its modern presentation language (XAML), its sandboxed security, and its easy deployment. This last point is critical as we move into the app store era.

LightSwitch could be strategic then, or it could be a Microsoft muddle, since the official marketing line is unconvincing. I have spent considerable time with the beta and doubt that the supposed target market will get on with it well. Developers will also have a challenge, since the documentation is, apparently deliberately, incomplete when it comes to writing code. There is no complete reference, just lots of how-to examples that might or might not cover what you wish to achieve.

Nevertheless, there are flashes of brilliance in LightSwitch and I hope, perhaps vainly, that it does not get crushed under Microsoft’s HTML 5 steamroller. I set out some of its interesting features in a post nearly a year ago.

Put aside for a moment concerns about Silverlight and about Microsoft’s marketing strategy. The truth is that Microsoft is doing innovative work with database tools, not only in LightSwitch with its model-driven development but also in the SQL Server database projects and “Juneau” tools coming up for “Denali”, SQL Server 2011, which I covered briefly elsewhere. LightSwitch deserves a close look, even it is not clear yet why you would want actually to use it.

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8 comments to Microsoft releases Visual Studio LightSwitch: a fascinating product with an uncertain future

  • Craig

    “developer division invented LightSwitch before Microsoft’s strategy shifted”
    I think this.

    LightSwitch may be a great product but is another example of Microsoft fails to create a cohesive story across it’s divisions.

  • When Kittyhawk (Lightswitch) first set out, its mandate was to underpin or align with Silverlight and becoming a draw-card for SQL licenses. In that everyone figured at the time that with these solutions people would generally create CRUD apps thus bleed into the SQL upsell / socketing (both at client and server-level). It also allowed folks to rapidly prototype LOB solutions that sat above Access but just below a day to day Silverlight solution.

    That was the plan, but once Silverlight got parked to the side to make away for Jupiter (Silverlight team’s attempt to hit reset on both Silverlight/WPF) the plans have somewhat changed. In fact now with Office 365 on the table the charters for Lightswitch and Access team got a bit confusing so now the two teams have to reconcile their differences around the future of the concept they are/were pushing. I’d not be surprised if a permutation of Lightswitch evolves into an Office team driven experience under the umbrella of Windows 8 Metro / HTML5 / C++ movement(s) vs what you see today.

    The point is there is a code reset under way, its ambitious but its sensitive thus journos are definitely not going to get the insights unless via leaks as most GM’s are uncertain of the direction to be honest. Its huge bets but not alot of assurances it’s going to work?

    Putting Lightswitch on Wp7 won’t happen unless they find an enterprise deployment model that bypasses the market place as we see it today. The WP7 teams have recently learnt that quantity wasn’t the win they hoped as on one hand they’ve got some app metrics they’re proud of but the flipside is the quality bands are glaring back at them as being crap. Putting lightswitch mickeymouse apps onto the marketplace will just poison any attempts they make to raise the quality bar for Wp7 marketplace. I highly doubt the Lightswitch team have that much pull to over-ride this problem.

  • Erix

    Disclaimer: I’m an MSFT employee.

    At least LS integrates with SharePoint, Office and Azure.
    It is not too bad for a “database” tool and to me it shows some kind of consistency.

    About the missing WP7 target: right now LS is targeting business applications, with CRUD operations, multiple (possible complex) master-detail forms… I don’t think smartphone format is really suitable for that.
    Now, I agree it would be interesting to have an evolution of LS for smartphones and slates in the future, but this will require a new dynamic app generation engine (redesigned for simplified touch screen interfaces).

    Just my 2 cents.

  • Savvas Kleanthous

    I have to say that I disagree with the general feeling of the article about LightSwitch being product with bad timing or for using Silverlight.

    I have used lightswitch from when it was beta, and I honestly would want to see it continue in its path as it did. To me it is an invaluable tool for creating rapid, working prototypes of the report suites that follow my products, and as such LightSwitch is invaluable. I would hate to see Lightswitch abandoned for lack of love from the community.

    Also I would agree with Erix that Sharepoint, Office and Azure support is much more importand that WP7 support, at least for the use I make of LightSwitch, and most of the community as well I guess.

  • tim

    Hi Savvas

    It is not that I don’t like the product, I think it is brilliant in some ways, but I think the marketing is wrong and the timing strange. There are already lots of ways to build Windows database apps; mobile is more of a challenge, but LightSwitch apps will not work on iPads, Android or even Windows Phone.

    As a matter of interest, would you describe yourself as a developer?

    Tim

  • Petr Antos

    Hi Tim,
    I am sure LS is strategic product. As it is “model-centric”, everything related to DB entities and UI screens is declared using XAML-like DSLs. And even LS name triggers for me that components can be “lightly switched” (?:) for something else – now it generates UI for SilverLight (and I had NOTHING against it, BTW), but the same model can generate UI for anything other in the future and I am sure in very near future (BUILD) also for html5/js using Jupiter (God knows what a beast it REALLY is:-))

  • tim

    I hope you are right Petr because that would really grab my attention.

    Tim

  • I can envision another scenario for LS. Since the “application defintion” xml file is “open”, some motivated developers could create the tooling to make the application run on HTML5 or anything else. I am considering writing a converter to PrimeFaces/EclipseLink/GlassFish.