Will Microsofts Orcas Make a Splash?

Review: Visual Studio 2008 promises to be a powerful, robust IDE. However, considering that "Orcas" has been in development for over three years, its new features are ultimately disappointing.

After experiencing Microsoft Visual Studio 2008, code-named Orcas, for the first time, I found myself asking, "Whats new?" For current users of the IDE, the answer initially will probably be, "Nothing."

That was my first reaction as I tested Beta 2 of Visual Studio 2008. Except for the addition of a Test item on the menu tool bar, there is not one visible change to the interface. After a little digging, and with a little guidance from Microsofts online documentation, I did find some new, and useful, features beneath the hood. However, theres not much to lure the "legacy" developer.

The Visual Studio platform is powerful and robust. Dating back to the 2003 and subsequent 2005 release of the IDE, Visual Studio has consolidated many of its features, and there really is no substitute for all that it can help users do, such as develop and deploy C/C++ applications on mobile platforms or write Windows applications for x86 platforms.

However, in comparing Orcas to its predecessor, and considering that it has been in development for more than three years, the new features are ultimately disappointing. As with the Windows Vista release earlier in 2007, Microsoft will make only small waves with Visual Studio in 2008.

Microsoft has published lots of content on its Web sites describing the new features and enhancements in the latest version of its popular IDE. There is a useful white paper available on the topic, which describes the latest version as "enabling," "enriching" and contributing to improved productivity.

The reality is that Visual Studio 2008 introduces features that only a subset of its users can really appreciate, and, generally speaking, those features are targeted at developers that work within the .Net Framework. Except for users writing in C# or Visual Basic, or Web developers who use Active Server Pages (ASP.Net), there really isnt much reason to upgrade.

Microsoft has made it clear that it is not trying to improve the general user experience of Visual Studio, but, rather, is more focused on helping Windows Vista proliferate, popularizing its development framework and advancing its general business strategy.

Visual Studio 2008 Beta 2 is available as a free download on the MSDN Web site. For this review, I installed Visual Studio 2008 Beta 2 Professional Edition on a virtual machine running Windows XP. The VM was hosted on a computer that was also running Windows XP, upon which I had installed Visual Studio 2005 for comparison.

Reeling us in

Visual Studio 2008 has been developed alongside Windows Vista, so, needless to say, my Windows XP test platform is not exactly the one that Microsoft is targeting. However, Vista itself has received a relatively ho-hum reception, and it is certainly true that for, some time yet, XP will be the operating system that most people using Orcas will be developing for. Thus, my test environment is arguably most typical of those deployed by current Windows/Visual Studio users, whether Microsoft likes it or not.


Click here to read more about Microsofts Visual Studio 2008.

When evaluating an IDE, I like to build projects using at least two different approaches, both of which are extremely common use cases. First, I create new applications from scratch, using whatever new project dialogs are available. This gives me a sense for how easy it is to specify new project settings and for how the templates are presented through the dialog.

Second, I import existing projects, and evaluate the transition when migrating to the new development environment. The latter scenario is more typical because changing tools is a more frequent occurrence than changing code bases.

Taking the bait

When creating a new project, just as in Visual Studio 2005, a Blank solution can be created and new projects added to it from a catalog of project templates. The project templates are where virtually all of the new features are to be found, and, to some of Visual Studios most long-standing users, are perhaps some of the biggest disappointments.

Under the "Visual C++" category, there are absolutely no new project templates—in this regard, Visual Studio 2008 is identical to 2005. This is sort of ironic: Visual Studio was introduced in 1997 primarily for C++ developers, yet, 10 years later, these same programmers seem to have been overlooked. There have been only a handful of methods and properties added to the foundational classes, which are intended to give GUI applications more of a Vista "look and feel." Are we supposed to get excited here about the Ribbon Bar? I dont think so.

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