Microsoft Web Services Tools Invite--And Challenge

Visual Studio .Net redraws app development playing field, but others are still in the game.

The first time you see a dancing bear, youre likely to be impressed that it can dance at all; you probably wont cavil if it steps on its trainers toes once or twice. Microsoft Corp.s Visual Studio .Net, launched today in San Francisco after what has sometimes seemed an endless wait, dances fairly well--and our feet are merely bruised, thank you, with no broken bones that weve yet noticed.

Microsoft has taken on the challenge of making distributed Web services and nonvisual, server-side application elements as accessible to developers as it made the resources of a stand-alone Windows PC with the original Visual Basic. The resulting product is a good deal more than just the next generation of "edit, compile, debug, repeat, release."

The product comes in several editions, with a feature matrix online at msdn.microsoft.com/vstudio/prodinfo/purchase/features.asp. The fully loaded Visual Studio .Net Enterprise Architect is priced at $2,499. Visual Studio .Net Enterprise Developer is $1,799. Visual Studio .Net Professional is $1,079. Standard editions of Visual Basic .Net, Visual C++ .Net and Visual C# .Net are also available for $109. This review addresses features common to the Professional edition and later but does not examine the application test and life-cycle management tools of the higher-priced Enterprise editions, or the Unified Modeling Language-based visual design tools found in Enterprise Architect only.

A feature matrix alone, however, doesnt adequately capture the new feel of this product. If the integrated environment of the 1990s was a compiler with tools wrapped around it, the integrated environment of the Web services era might be characterized as an Internet portal--with development tools among the resources it offers. Without the portal elements, the tools to build Web services would be almost as useless as owning the only telephone in the world: No matter how well it works, on its own, its value is in the conversations it enables.

When you go through the Visual Studio .Net portal, youre not in Kansas anymore. (Chorus from offstage: "No, youre in Redmond, Wash.!") Developers examining this tool set will want answers to a yin and yang of complementary questions. First, can it do what they want? Second, will it force them to do things that they dont want? Answering those questions requires a reviewer to consider some novel issues.