With the current release of Visual Studio 2005 now entering the latter stages of midlife, Microsoft is beginning the final march to release of the sequel, which remains code-named Orcas. It is releasing the first of what are expected to be at least a couple beta versions of the next version of Visual Studio, which does not yet have a product name. And it is also releasing the beta of the next rev of the .NET Framework, version 3.5.
One of the obvious features is direct support of Vista, which until now was only available for Visual Studio 2005 (the current product) through plug-in. That makes sense, given that Orcas has come after Vista. The same goes for support for recent Microsoft technologies such as ASP.NET Ajax libraries (formerly code-named Project Atlas).
Orcas also makes data and workflows first-class citizens, meaning you can access databases or trigger workflows without having to leave VB or C#. Under the covers, Orcas embeds LINQ, otherwise known as Language Integrated Query, a feature that Microsoft initially introduced in pre-release versions back in 2005, and until now has only been available as an add-in.
LINQ lets you develop database queries in VB.NET or C#, without forcing you to drop down in to SQL. LINQ is part of a long tradition that began in the 4GL era of simplifying database access. While the early 4GLs, such as PowerBuilder, let you map queries visually, you still had to know SQL. That’s what LINQ is intended to bridge.
Orcas is also tightening links with Microsoft Office, making it easier for developers to customize features such as the ribbons of Office 2007, or developing more powerful VB or C# equivalents to Excel Macros. The current product, Visual Studio 2005, has supported word, Excel, and more recently, Outlook. Orcas adds support for PowerPoint and InfoPath.
Of course, you could ask, why is this needed when there is already Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), which is also intended as a tool for customizing Office? The answer is that VBA is not aimed at mainstream developers, and isn’t as powerful as VB.NET or C#. For instance, when developing through Visual Studio, you could have the faces of Office changed, spreadsheets populated, or PowerPoint slides generated as the result of a trigger from a web service, for instance. You couldn’t really pull that off in VBA.
Another piece of Orcas is incremental improvements to Visual Studio Team Foundation Server (TFS), for choreographing tasks and communicating results during the application lifecycle. For Orcas, Microsoft has tweaked TFS to improve performance and roughly double scalability. While the old version could support about 3000 concurrent users, the new version should support twice that.
In parallel with release of the Orcas beta is the beta release of the .NET 3.5. The highlight is that it adds direct support for the WinFX programming frameworks of Vista, including Windows Communications Framework (WCF) and Windows Workflow Foundation (WF).
In other words, it automates generating the right configurations so a VB.NET or C# developer can automatically invoke workflows and expose them as web services without having to write dozens of files. It simplifies it to right clicking and getting dialogue boxes asking which web service standards, such as WS-Security or WS-ReliableMessaging, to invoke. Additionally, .NET 3.5 adds support for recent Oasis web services standards including Web Services Atomic Transaction (WS-AtomicTransaction) 1.1, WS-ReliableMessaging 1.1, WS-SecureConversation and Web Services Coordination (WS-Coordination) 1.1.
Additionally, applications using WCF can now syndicate data that can be picked up by RSS or ATOM readers.
Although this is the first beta of Orcas, it probably won’t be the last. According to Visual Studio product manager Prashant Sridharan, there will probably be at least one more beta. And while Microsoft is shooting to get the final release out by year end, it’s not promising anything. So, although Sridharan said that the formal branding has not yet been assigned, it won’t be surprising if the general availability version is called Visual Studio 2008.
Most of the new features are hardly surprising. The long laundry list reflects the fact that since Visual Studio 23005 came out, Microsoft has released a new version of Windows with a whole new programming model,. And meanwhile, the web services standards world has hardly stood still.
But what’s kind of interesting is the close coordination between releases of Visual Studio and the .NET framework. As you might recall, one of Microsoft’s debating points about .NET is that it is supposed to be fairly language agnostic. That’s because .NET takes a page from Java and virtualizes the language from the underlying platform, which of course in this case is Windows.
But Microsoft risks drowning itself in its own message if it continues to promote how well the .NET Framework is in sync with Visual Studio, and vice versa.