Microsoft Turns On the LightSwitch for Non-Programmers

Microsoft has announced another new tool named LightSwitch that is aimed at turning non-programming business professionals into developers. The tools uses templates and other components that in many instances require no coding at all.

Microsoft has long been enamored with the notion of bringing beginners or non-programmers into the developer fold-first with Visual Basic and then with its Express SKUs of Visual Studio, which were aimed at hobbyists and power users. And now the software giant has launched Visual Studio LightSwitch.

As Microsoft Senior Vice President S. "Soma" Somasegar noted in an Aug. 3 blog post, "LightSwitch is the simplest way to build business applications for the cloud and the desktop."

Dave Mendlen, senior director of developer marketing at Microsoft, said LightSwitch is aimed at the power user or business professional accustomed to using tools such as Access or Excel. The tool enables them to build professional-looking, custom business applications practically and affordably through prebuilt templates.

"It's like a take-and-bake pizza," Mendlen told eWEEK in an interview. "You can put as many or as few toppings on it as you want."

Mendlen said LightSwitch will become available in beta on Aug. 23. The product was announced at the VSLive conference on Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Wash., during the keynote address of Jason Zander, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Visual Studio team. LightSwitch was originally codenamed KittyHawk.

Somasegar said as responsibilities continue to shift in organizations, where business professionals are asked to do more-even to develop basic apps-"it's become clear that a broader set of developers is building business applications and really expects a much simpler way to quickly accomplish their goals...and with this observation, a light went on and LightSwitch was born."

"LightSwitch provides a variety of prebuilt templates and tools to build business applications that target the cloud or desktop using as much or as little code as you want to write," Somasegar said. "With LightSwitch, there is now a tool that better enables business domain experts to easily build professional-quality, line-of-business applications without focusing on writing code. This is critical because these business applications-which may be built out of a short-term need- often need to be extended and IT supported."

Moreover, Mendlen said developers only need to make the initial decision of whether to build their application in Visual Basic or C#. From there, these newfangled developers can build forms from existing templates and populate them with data from data sources including SQL Server, SQL Azure, SharePoint and others. "There is integrated support for working with Microsoft Office for tasks such as exporting data to Excel without having to write code," Somasegar said. "Within minutes you can have a basic business application created and ready to deploy, leveraging disparate data sources and Office tools. While developing your application, you can modify the application as it runs."

In testing the product, Mendlen said Microsoft "brought in a collection of developers and business end users. We brought in a lot of users of Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) and Excel."

Added Mendlen: "At the very low end you don't have to write any code. We're looking to enable business people to -go rogue'."

LightSwitch creates Silverlight applications that can run in the browser, out of the browser or in the cloud, Somasegar said. And when a developer's application grows beyond its initial bounds, they can use Visual Studio 2010 Professional, Premium or Ultimate to extend and customize it further.

For his part, Mike Gualtieri, a senior analyst with Forrester, said:

"I think there has been a pent-up demand for a development tool like LightSwitch since the days of 4GLs. In the early '90s, application development tools such as PowerBuilder, FoxPro, Access, VB and 4GL were all the rage because they were easier to use than programming directly in languages such as C and C++. Then, the Internet came along and disrupted the way applications were developed and delivered. The result: App dev got very technical again starting with CGI and the Java, JS, etc...Now that Web development has become mainstream it is again time to return to providing development tools that make app dev more accessible to a wider audience."

And Gualtieri's Forrester analyst colleague, Jeffrey Hammond, added:

"I think it's really interesting because of who it's designed for, not the grizzled professional developer-but rather a power user who knows what they need, and isn't afraid to try their hand in building it themselves. In some ways it reminds me of early client server tools like VB or Lotus Notes, but updated for modern application technologies like cloud and the Web. We're starting to see a number of these rapid Web development tools emerging, and I think with Microsoft's entry into the space it's going to get a lot more attention. One of the things I like best about LightSwitch is that although it allows individual users or casual developers to build apps that IT doesn't have the time to do, it also allows those apps to be converted into full-blown Visual Studio .NET project if the application start to get more important to a business. In this way it's an on-ramp to .NET, not an alternative."

Meanwhile, although LightSwitch is clearly a boon for non-developers, many professional developers see it as a possible nightmare, as more and more non-professional developers "go rogue." The professionals feel this could lead to maintenance headaches and backlogs of apps that simply are more trouble than they are worth.

However, Mendlen said this is not as likely as it may seem. "These applications will still maintain the connection and compatibility with the .NET technology. When we constructed this we said how can we account for all these rogue developers out there and have them still be into Visual Studio."

Meanwhile, Gualtieri added:

"Microsoft will have to clearly position the sweet spot of LightSwitch so that customers are not confused between SharePoint, Web Matrix and some of the Expression tools that can also be used to build apps. LightSwitch's sweet spot is for developing a wide range of business applications. One concern I have about the first release of LightSwitch is the lack of a visual designer. I think many users will expect this. The opportunity and pent-up demand for these tools is even greater now than it was in the '90s because tech-savvy end-user developers are not intimidated by the notion of application development; consummate users of consumer and business applications; cheered on by their business peers, and are familiar with common development metaphors."