Tag Archives: visual studio

Visual Studio 2012 hits and misses

A few quick reflections after writing a rather large review of Visual Studio 2012, Microsoft’s development tool for everything Windows.

Several things impressed me. The Graphics Diagnostics Tools for Direct3D, for example, is amazing; you can capture a frame, select a pixel, and drill down into why it is the colour it is. See Amit Mohindra’s blog post here. Though admittedly I got “Unable to start the experiment session” on my first go with this; make sure the Debugger Type is set to Native Only.


Graphics is not really my area; but web development is more like it, and I continue to be impressed by what Microsoft has done with Windows Azure. You can go from hitting New Project in Visual Studio to an ASP.NET MVC 4.0 web site up and running on Windows Azure in moments. Even if you add an Azure SQL database into the mix it is not much harder. The experience is slightly spoiled by the fact that the new Azure portal for web sites etc is still in preview and seems to be a bit unreliable; I sometimes get an error when logging in and have to refresh before it works. That is a minor detail though; the actual deployed web sites and applications seem to work fine.

That said, it was also apparent to me that Microsoft’s Azure story has become a little confusing. Want an ASP.NET web app on Azure? Choose between a Web Role, a stateful VM, or a web site. Both web roles and web sites can be scaled quite effectively, thanks to the built in load balancer for web sites. Still, choice is good, as long as the differences are understood. It appears that Microsoft is still backing the web role approach as the most architecturally sound; but web sites are so easy to use and understand that it would not surprise me if they are more successful.

Another hit with me is the SQL Server Data Tools (SSDT), once I understood the difference between DACPACs and BACPACs – a DACPAC encapsulates the schema and logins etc for a database in a single file that you can import elsewhere, whereas a BACPAC also stores the data. The approach in SSDT is that a database schema is just a bunch of SQL scripts, and that if you manage it that way it makes a lot of sense in terms of version control, schema comparisons, deployment and maintenance.

On the ALM side I am impressed with Team Foundation Server Express, which is genuinely easy to install and lights up most of the key features of Microsoft’s ALM platform, though it does not handle the full SharePoint team portal or all the reporting features. Cloud hosting is also an option for TFS and that also worked OK for me, though with occasional delays as my code crossed the internet.

I hesitate slightly with TFS though. It feels like a heavyweight solution, whereas most developers like lightweight solutions. I know that open source tools like git and subversion only do a fraction of what you can do with TFS; but they also never keep me waiting.

I also wonder whether TFS simply creates too many artefacts. Work items seem to multiply rapidly as you use the system, which is good for traceability but could also become a bit of a bureaucratic nightmare if you have team members who make every action into a thing that needs comments and deadlines and links to source code and so on.

I guess it is like any other tool; it will work well for a team that already works well, but will not solve problems for a team that is already a bit dysfunctional.

I had not looked at Microsoft’s modelling featurs for a while; I was interested to discover new code generation features in the UML diagramming tools.

I am slowly beginning to understand what Microsoft is doing with apps for SharePoint. Get this: Microsoft is moving SharePoint 2013 towards being more of a service than a platform; you do not build apps on SharePoint; you build apps that use SharePoint services. This means you can at last develop SharePoint apps without having SharePoint installed on the same box as Visual Studio (thank goodness). And you can build SharePoint apps with PHP or Java as well as ASP.NET, because they are calling SharePoint, not running on it. Makes sense.

So what is not to like? There are a few puzzles, like the way Visual C++ has fallen behind in standards compliance despite the presence of Herb Sutter at Microsoft.

I also still find the whole XAML/Visual Studio/Blend thing a bit of a struggle. One day I will open up Blend, Microsoft’s XAML designer, and it will all fall into place as a natural and quick way to build a user interface, but it has not happened yet. I have also heard that developers should find the designer in Visual Studio enough; but at best it is rather slow and a little unpredictable.

Otherwise the tools for Windows Store apps seem decent to me, though I have heard that advanced developers are finding some issues; not surprising considering how new a platform it is. It is a distinctive platform, and my sense it that while there is a lot to like, developers need time to get the best from it, and there is also scope for Microsoft to improve it, maybe a few refinements in Windows 8 SP1?

Considering its scope, Visual Studio was relatively stable in my tests, though I did once get it into a state where it froze every time I tried to debug an application; fixed by a reboot (sigh).

I do not mind the monochrome user interface; I do not like it especially but it is something you get used to and do not notice after a short time.

Overall? Few people will use everything that is in Visual Studio and of course I have missed out most of it in the above, but it is a mighty achievement and still an asset to Microsoft’s platform.

Platform churn? If it is in Windows 8, we are committed to it says Microsoft

I interviewed Corporate VP of Microsoft’s developer division Soma Somasegar at the Visual Studio 2012 launch last week; see the article on the Register here. I asked about the inconsistency of the Microsoft platform, and the way the platform story has changed over the years (Win32, .NET, WPF, Silverlight and now Windows Runtime). Can developers trust in the longevity of today’s platform, especially on the client?

Here is what I thought was interesting about his reply:

Any technology you see shipping as part of Windows 8, we are very committed to that.

So what ships in Windows 8? Well, for reasons which are hard to discern for those of us outside Microsoft, Silverlight is not shipped in Windows 8. It is an optional download. In fact, the only plug-in installed by default is Adobe Flash:


No, that does not imply that Microsoft is committed to Flash; but it does suggest lack of commitment to Silverlight, which we knew.

What you do get though is .NET Framework 4.5. This is baked in and cannot be removed as far as I can tell, though you can add and remove some advanced features.

This means you also have Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF); and in fact Somasegar specifically refers to this alongside Win32 and the new Windows Runtime.

The inclusion of technology in a current Microsoft product has implications for its support lifecycle. The ancient Visual Basic runtime, for example, is still assured of a long life since it is part of Office 2013.


My guess is that Microsoft’s thinking goes something like this. Right now, as the October launch date of Windows 8 approaches, what Microsoft needs most urgently is a viable ecosystem for its new Windows Runtime environment. This, you will notice, is the focus of the forthcoming BUILD conference as so far announced.


What, though, of the Windows desktop, has Microsoft abandoned it as legacy? My guess is that we will get deliberately mixed messaging on the subject. On the one hand, Microsoft has relegated the desktop to a single tile in the new Start screen. On the other hand, most of us will spend most of our time in the desktop, not least developers who need it to run Visual Studio. If Microsoft succeeds in establishing the new Windows Runtime platform, it would not surprise me to see a little more love given to the desktop in, say, Windows 9.

Microsoft’s platform story is messy, without question, and especially so in mobile. We have seen Windows Mobile replaced by the incompatible Windows Phone 7, and now those loyal developers who invested in the Silverlight/XNA Windows Phone 7 technologies are finding that it is all change again in Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 (though the exact details await the release of the Windows Phone SDK).

It seems clear though that the company’s current intent is that Windows Runtime evolves as the primary client platform for both phone and tablet, while desktop remains for legacy support and for applications that do not fit the new model, such as Visual Studio and (for the time being) Office.

What if Microsoft fails to establish the Windows Runtime as a popular app platform? All I can add is that I know of no Plan B.

Visual Studio 2012 launch: focus on Modern Apps

Microsoft is holding a launch event in Seattle for Visual Studio 2012, attended by selected Microsoft-platform developers as well as press from around the world.


Corporate VP Soma Somasegar kicked off the keynote, saying that Visual Studio 2012 has already been downloaded 600,000 times since its release to the web around one month ago – a take-up, he said, which exceeds previous versions.


But what is Visual Studio 2012 all about? It’s for Modern Apps, said Somasegar, though you would be wrong to imagine that this means a Windows 8 formerly-known-as-Metro app. Rather, a Modern App implies continuous services and multiple client devices, connected over both public and private networks. In other words, think mobile as well as desktop, public and private cloud, and bring your own device as well as corporate desktops.

Fair enough, but it is all a bit vague and still leaves us wondering what exactly apps for the Windows Runtime are called at Microsoft. Visual Studio calls them Windows Store apps, which does not make complete sense when you consider that you can deploy the apps without going through the Store, and that the Store can include desktop apps although these are links rather than direct downloads.

Visual Studio 2012 is a vast and impressive product though. Developers were shown various new features, including asynchronous development for maintaining a responsive user interface, pixel-level debugging in DirectX, after the fact debugging using Intellitrace, and new HTML and CSS support in the editor, with error highlighting that adapts to the specified version of HTML.

There was a quick demonstration of developing for Kinect, in which we saw an avatar mimic the movements of VP Jason Zander.


Technical Fellow Brian Harry spent some time showing off application lifecycle features in Team Foundation Server, including improved Scrum support and an emphasis on agile concepts like whole team development (the development team is not just developers).

There were a couple of announcements, including news of an update in preparation for Visual Studio 2012 which will include new features. There will be a preview later this month and delivery by the end of 2012.

Visual Studio Express for the desktop has now shipped and is available for download. This supports development in C#, Visual Basic and C++, so there is now a free C++ compiler available for Windows desktop development in the Visual Studio 2012 family.

I spoke to a couple of the invited developers after the morning event. Visual Studio 2012 looks good, they told me, but then again what choice is there for Windows platform development? That said, they had expected a stronger push for Windows 8 development, especially on the Metro-style side. Why did Microsoft not spend more time evangelising Windows 8 app development and the Windows Store? Of course there is a lot to cover but given how critical app momentum is to the success of the new Windows, it struck me as a valid point.

Telerik releases Kendo UI components for ASP.NET MVC

Component vendor Telerik has released an updated version of Kendo UI, its HTML5 framework. This is the first non-beta release with support for ASP.NET MVC server wrappers, with components including Grid, ListView, calendar and date controls, tree view, menu, editor and more. Kendo UI supports the MVVM (Model View ViewModel) pattern popular with Microsoft developers.



Telerik seems to be treading a careful path, maintaining its strong links to the .NET developer community while also creating a framework that can be used on other platforms.

I spoke to Todd Anglin, VP of HTML5 tools. Why the support for ASP.NET MVC – is Telerik seeing this becoming more popular than Web Forms, the older ASP.NET approach to web applications?

“Something in the range of 70% of ASP.NET developers are on web forms. We do see a bit of a trend that as they start new projects, developers are adopting ASP.NET MVC and HTML5, which is where it makes sense to use Kendo UI,” he told me.

The main reason though is that Kendo UI is less suitable for Web Forms, where more of the client-side code is generated by the framework. “Web Forms are a very high level abstraction,” said Anglin. “With MVC developers are a little closer to the metal.”

That said, he is not ruling out a Web Form wrapper for Kendo UI long-term.

Anglin says Kendo UI’s use of JQuery is a distinctive feature.  “Over the last few years JQuery has clearly risen above the pack to be the most common core Javascript library and the one most developers are familiar with. Unlike most commercial libraries out there Kendo UI chooses the JQuery core as the starting point and builds on that, so developers that adopt Kendo UI have a smoother on-ramp.”

Kendo UI supports both mobile and desktop web applications, but with different controls. “We believe that developers should offer experiences that are tailored to each device class, which is why you have Kendo UI web for keyboard and mouse, and Kendo UI mobile with a mobile-specific interface. We share code behind that, like the data source, between web and mobile, but we don’t think the interface on a mobile device should be the same as you show on a desktop browser,” said Anglin.

What about the tools side? Although Anglin says “We want to be agnostic on tools”, there is particularly good support for Visual Studion. “Kendo UI integrates with anything that supports HTML and JavaScript well, which includes the latest version of Visual Studio. We are delivering full vsdoc support for Visual Studio so that developers in that environment get Intellisense for JavaScript. But if you’re on a Mac you can use other tools,” he told me.

More interesting is a forthcoming cloud IDE. “We’ve just revealed a new tool called Icenium which is a cloud-based development environment for creating apps in HTML and JavaScript. It’s an incredible environment for building apps with Kendo UI.”

How about HTML5 apps that target the Windows Runtime (Metro) in Windows 8 – will Kendo UI work there? Apparently not:

“It’s certainly something we’ve paid attention to. Telerik’s primary position for Windows 8 runtime and Windows 8 development is with the traditional .NET targeted tools. Our RAD tools later this year will focus on introducing XAML and HTML tools for Windows Runtime. The HTML tools that we introduce will have a shared engineering core with Kendo UI, but we’ll make a tool that is specifically targeted at that runtime.

“Kendo UI is really focused on the cross-platform, cross-browser experience. You write once, at a core code level, and then use all the runtimes out there for HTML and JavaScript. Whereas Windows Runtime is leveraging familiar technology in HTML and JavaScript, but when you write a Windows Runtime app you are writing Windows software. It’s very platform-specific.”

Visual Studio LightSwitch to get HTML5 support

Microsoft’s Visual Studio LightSwitch is a rapid application development tool designed to create database-oriented, browser hosted applications with little code.

LightSwitch is intriguing because it does model-driven development. You design the model, LightSwitch generates the application. Microsoft’s idea was that non-specialist developer would like the tool, though there is little evidence of that. However, it does enable professional developers to put together functional applications quickly.

Unfortunately LightSwitch was conceived when Silverlight was all the rage at Microsoft. It generates Silverlight apps, which means they can run either on the desktop or in the browser, but also cuts out every device out there that does not run Silverlight. Including of course hot new mobile devices from Apple iOS to Android and even, on the Metro side, Windows 8.

But this is model-driven development, right? Just add code generation for HTML 5 and the same tool will generate standard browser-based apps.

Microsoft has announced just that at TechEd, under way this week in Florida. Visual Studio VP Jason Zander demonstrated LightSwitch for HTML5:


which means you can run the apps on iOS:


This feature is not in the current RC of Visual Studio 2012 but will be added later.

HTML 5 support puts LightSwitch back on the map as a RAD (Rapid Application Development) tool. But is there any appetite for model-driven development, which has all-but failed in so many other implementations?

That is as yet unproven, but at least the fate of LightSwitch no longer depends on that of Silverlight.

Developers like coding in the dark

Many developers prefer to code against dark backgrounds, according to this post by Monty Hammontree, Director of User Experience in Microsoft’s developer tools division.

Many of you have expressed a preference for coding within a dark editor. For example, dark editor themes dominate the list of all-time favorites at web sites such as http://studiostyl.es/ which serve as a repository for different Visual Studio styles.

Chief among the reasons many of you have expressed for preferring dark backgrounds is the reduced strain placed on the eyes when staring at the screen for many hours. Many developers state that light text on a dark background is easier to read over longer periods of time than dark text on a light background.


Personally I am not in this group. A white-ish background works well for me, and if it is too bright, simply reducing the monitor brightness is an effective fix.

Interesting post though, if only for the snippets of information about the new Visual Studio. Apparently it has around 6000 icons used in 28,000 locations. Another little fact:

Visual Studio’s UI is a mix of WPF, Windows Forms, Win32, HTML, and other UI technologies which made scrollbar theming a challenging project.

If you will be using Visual Studio 2012, are you on the dark side?

A little colour returns to Visual Studio 11 – but not much

Microsoft has responded to user feedback by re-introducing colour into the Visual Studio 11 IDE. The top request in the official feedback forum was for more colour in the toolbars and icons.


Now Microsoft’s Monty Hammontree, who is Director of User Experience, Microsoft Developer Tools Division – it is interesting that such a post exists – has blogged about the company’s response:

We’ve taken this feedback and based on what we heard have made a number of changes planned for Visual Studio 11 RC.

That said, developers expecting a return to the relatively colourful icons in Visual Studio 2010 will be disappointed. Hammontree posted the following side by side image:


This shows Visual Studio 10 first, then the beta, and then the forthcoming release candidate. Squint carefully and you can see a few new splashes of colour.


You can also see the the word toolbox is no longer all upper case, another source of complaint.

Hammontree explains that colour has been added to selected icons in order to help distinguish between common actions, differentiate icons within the Solution Explorer, and to reintroduce IntelliSense cues.

Did Microsoft do enough? Some users have welcomed the changes:

You have to appreciate a company that listens to there [sic] users and actually makes changes based off feedback. You guys rock!

while others are doubtful:

with respect, I fear that the changes are token ones and that whoever’s big idea this monochromatic look is, is stubbornly refusing to let go of it in spite of the users overwhelming rejection of it.

or the wittier:

I’m glad you noticed all the feedback about the Beta, when people were upset that you chose the wrong shade of gray.

While the changes are indeed subtle, they are undoubtedly an improvement for those hankering for more colour.

Another issue is that by the time a product hits beta in the Microsoft product cycle, it is in most cases too late to make really major changes. The contentious Metro UI in Windows 8 will be another interesting example.

That said, there are more important things in Visual Studio 11 than the colour scheme, despite the attention the issue has attracted.

Microsoft’s Visual Studio LightSwitch: does it have a future?

A recent and thorough piece on Visual Studio LightSwitch prompted a Twitter discussion on what kind of future the product has. Background:

  • LightSwitch is an application generator which builds data-driven applications.
  • A LightSwitch application uses ASP.NET on the server and Silverlight on the client.
  • LightSwitch applications can be deployed to Windows Azure
  • LightSwitch apps can either be browser-hosted or use Silverlight out of browser for the desktop
  • LightSwitch is model-driven so in principle it could generate other kinds of client, such as HTML5 or Windows 8 Metro.
  • LightSwitch first appeared last year, and has been updated for Visual Studio 11, now in beta.

I have looked at LightSwitch in some detail, including a hands-on where I built an application. I have mixed feelings about the product. It was wrongly marketed, as the kind of thing a non-professional could easily pick up to generate an application for their business. In my opinion it is too complex for most such people. The real market is professional developers looking for greater productivity. As a way of building a multi-tier application which does its best to enforce good design principles, LightSwitch is truly impressive; though I also found annoyances like skimpy documentation, and that some things which should have been easy turned out to be difficult. The visual database designer is excellent.

The question now: what kind of future does LightSwitch have? Conceptually, it is a great product and could evolve into something useful, but I question whether Microsoft will stick with it long enough. Here is what counts against it:

  • The decision to generate Silverlight applications now looks wrong. Microsoft is not going to do much more with Silverlight, and is more focused on HTML5 and JavaScript, or Windows Runtime for Metro-style apps in Windows 8 and some future Windows Phone. There is some family resemblance between Windows Runtime and Silverlight, but not necessarily enough to make porting easy.
  • There is no mobile support, not even for Windows Phone 7 which runs Silverlight.
  • I imagine sales have been dismal. The launch product was badly marketed and perplexing to many.

What about the case in favour? Silverlight enthusiast Michael Washington observes that the new Visual Studio 11 version of LightSwitch generates OData feeds on the server, rather than WCF RIA Services. OData is a REST-based service that is suitable for consumption by many different kinds of client. To prove his point, Washington has created demo mobile apps using HTML5 and JQuery – no Silverlight in sight.


Pic from here.

Washington also managed to extract this comment from Microsoft’s Steve Hoag on the future of LightSwitch, in an MSDN forum discussion:

LightSwitch is far from dead. Without revealing anything specific I can confirm that the following statements are true:

– There is a commitment for a long term life of this product, with other versions planned

– There is a commitment to explore creation of apps other than Silverlight, although nothing will be announced at this time

Hoag is the documentation lead for LightSwitch.

That said, Microsoft has been known to make such commitments before but later abandon them. Microsoft told me it was committed to cross-platform Silverlight, for example. And it was, for a bit, at least on Windows and Mac; but it is not now. Microsoft was committed to IronRuby and IronPython, once.

For those with even longer memories, I recall a discussion on CompuServe about Visual Basic for DOS. This was the last version of Microsoft Basic for DOS, a fine language in its way, and with a rather good character-based interface builder. Unfortunately it was buggy, and users were desperate for a bug-fix release. Into this discussion appeared a guy from Microsoft, who announced that he was responsible for the forthcoming update to Visual Basic for DOS and asked for the top requests.

Good news – except that there never was an update.

The truth is that with LightSwitch still in beta for Visual Studio 11, it is unlikely that any decision has been made about its future. My guess, and it is only that, is that the Visual Studio 11 version will be little used and that there will be no major update. If I am wrong and it is a big hit, then there will be an update. If I am right about its lack of uptake, but its backing within Microsoft is strong enough, then maybe in Visual Studio 12 or even sooner we will get a version that does it right, with output options for cross-platform HTML5 clients and for Windows Phone and Windows Metro. But do not hold your breath.

Developers dislike monochrome Visual Studio 11 beta

Microsoft is having trouble convincing developers that its new Metro-influenced Visual Studio user interface, in the forthcoming version now in beta, is a good idea.

To be more precise, it is not so much Metro, but the way Microsoft has chosen to use it, with toolbox icons now black and white. The change also affects menus such as IntelliSense in the code editor. Here is the new design:


or you can choose a “Dark” colour scheme:


and the old 2010 design for comparison:


Developers voting on this over at UserVoice, the official feedback site, have made this the single biggest issue, with 4707 votes.


They do not much like the All Caps in the toolbox names either.

Microsoft has marked this as “Under review” so maybe there could yet be a more colourful future for Visual Studio 11.

What is the best way to choose a development tool?

Research company Evans Data sent me a link this morning to its new Tool Grader service. This is a simple web application for reviewing and rating software tools. The same tool may rated separately rated for different platforms. For example, there is one entry for Eclipse under UNIX/Linux, and another separate one under Tools for Mobile.

I took a quick look and rate the site mostly useless. There are not many reviews, and most of the reviews are of little value, for example “This Is The Best Programming Tool i Have Ever Used,” from somebody who says that Eclipse “Must be used as a competitor for Java.”


The site would improve of course if a lot of people were to use it; but currently there is little incentive to do so, since most developers will take one look and never return. Evans Data could do better; it has a ton of data from surveys it has conducted and if it were to take some of the more useful data from those reports and integrate it with the Tool Grader the site would be more valuable. It will not do that I guess because its business model is to sell those reports, and because it would be a lot of work.

It gave me pause for thought though. What is the best way to choose a development tool? Part of the problem is that context is everything. The same tool will be great for one purpose and poor for another; it depends what you want it for, especially when it is a multi-faceted product like Eclipse or Visual Studio, both of which are really tool platforms.

If you are looking for information on which tool will be best for your project, I doubt that either Tool Grader or even purchasing an expensive report will help you much. One approach that has value is to install several candidates and try them out, but it takes considerable time and effort. Another idea is to go along to an active community like Stack Overflow, describe your project in some detail including any constraints like “our developers span three continents” or “the boss insists we use Rational ClearCase for source code management”, and ask for opinions from other users.

When I am assessing a tool I always try to visit forums where it is discussed and get a flavour of the types of problems and queries users have. If there is little discussion that suggests the tool is most likely little used, usually a bad thing. If the vendor has no open discussion on its site and emphasises the “contact support” route that suggests a weak community. I also look for potential showstoppers like instability or intractable problems such as difficulty wresting acceptable performance from either the tool or its output.

I do not pretend it is easy though. Tool choices are important because they have a significant impact on productivity, and it is hard to change your mind once you and your team have invested money, skills and code in a particular product.