On VSLive 2010, Microsoft announced Visual Studio LightSwitch. In this article, I want to take a short look at what it is, based on the information provided by Microsoft so far. Then I’ll share some of my thoughts on this with you about how this might affect us as developers.
So What is this LightSwitch Thingy About?
Well, basically it is a new edition of Visual Studio 2010 that enables people to quickly build data oriented applications (are there any other types?). ‘Oh,’ I hear you say, ‘another Oracle Forms clone. That’s not going to be any good.’ Well, first of all, I’d say go and take a look at the VSLive 2010 Keynote. Also there is a great introduction video here. And for more of a deep dive, you can check out this video.
‘Ok, so it’s just the next Microsoft Access?’, I hear you ask. Well, not quite either. The big difference with the previously mentioned platforms is the fact that you get an application with a multi-tier architecture and you get to choose what your client is and what your data source is. You can even have multiple data sources and link them together. And if you need to take your application to the next level, there are all kinds of extensibility points in both the underlying framework and the IDE itself.
On the UI end, they have figured a way to do better as well. In the IDE, you don’t have a WYSIWYG editor, but a sort of a tree view so you can better see and understand what you’re doing. The generated UI is also based on templates, so you can easily update the look and feel of your application at one point. And then when you do want a WYSIWYG editor, you just start up your application, click a button and you are on your way.
All in all, it seems that Microsoft has succeeded in building a tool attempted and failed by a lot of companies.
The Holy Grail of Database Oriented Systems?
For decades, a lot of companies have attempted to build a system where you would simply define a data model, press a button and presto, there is your new software. Most companies failed and some partly succeeded, but no one was able to build a system that would actually work in a broad spectrum of cases and still provide enough customizability to implement the very specific features needed in very specific applications.
Most of the time, failure occurred because the software would be too generic and the resulting applications would not meet enough of the users needs. And when teams would attempt to implement code to satisfy these needs, they would either become too specific or too expensive.
But is it really that simple? I don’t think so. Most database oriented systems I’ve worked on/with always have some form of extra processing, connect to external systems in special ways or need some very specific UI. In practice, I think that most applications that professional developers work on will not be built with LightSwitch all of a sudden. There may be some, but not many. There will be many reasons not to build an application in LightSwitch, but the main reason will be that developers feel they might not have enough control to actually build what is required. Another important reason is that you don’t get to choose what technology is used to build your application.
‘So it’s not the holy grail, then? It must fail miserably’ I hear you say. Well, no.
LightSwitch as a Game Changer
LightSwitch will be a game changer. We will see less complicated systems being build in LightSwitch all over the place. For Microsoft, I guess it is all about getting the smaller companies to go with them, instead of going open source. And they do give them an important advantage in allowing them to cheaply and easily build their own software and still keep that software scalable. So in that respect, it is a game changer.
Another effect will not be seen until we have moved on a couple of years. Right now, we see a lot of applications build in Microsoft Access, which have reached their limits and need a ‘professional’ rebuild. Usually that means bringing in a team of developers to get the job done. Changes are these applications will not be rebuild in LightSwitch. However, what will happen with the LightSwitch applications in a couple of years, when they have reached their limits? Exactly, developers will need to be extending those systems. Mind you, I do think this will greatly reduce the number of rebuilds of applications, as I expect Microsoft to come up with a good upgrade strategy for future versions of LightSwitch, making sure they are always running on the latest and greatest technology.
And finally, I think we will be seeing more and more ‘secondary’ applications. What I mean by that is applications which are used to fill in some gaps in our current processes. For example, if you are building a LOB application and you have some tables in your databases, that your company needs to maintain for your customers, why would you not build the UI for that in LightSwitch? Or if you need to collect metadata for generating code, why not do that in LightSwitch? And there will be many other uses like this for LightSwitch where it can add to existing systems as well.
As with a lot of the new technologies that we’ve seen in the past decade, LightSwitch does provide us with another useful tool in our toolbox. It again takes away some of the repeating work we as developers do, so we can focus on what makes our software unique. This again will be a game changer, just not as a lot of people expect.
So what are your thoughts on LightSwitch? Let us know by leaving a comment.