Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Turning on the Lightswitch

Microsoft announced a brand new tool for business users yesterday called "Lightswitch", which (according to the announcement) makes it easier to build business applications for the desktop or the cloud.

Beth Massi sounds super excited by it, describing it as a tool that makes it easier to build data-centric applications, something that FoxPro developers know a little about.

Mary Jo Foley discussed Lightswitch as a tool similar to FoxPro:
" The idea, my sources say, is to bring the Fox/Access style of programming to .Net".

I don't buy that or maybe more to the point, I wouldn't put FoxPro and Access in the same boat to begin with.

This sounds more like an "Access" version of InfoPath which lets you "build advanced forms for line of business applications". If you walk through the screen shots shown on Jason Zander's intro page, it looks more like an application Setup Wizard or a "template-driven" application builder.

I welcome all tools to make building applications easy for organizations - it may dilute what many call "programming" - but if it solves an immediate business need, great.

However, remember all those efforts IT and centralized development shops have made to centralize development efforts, ensuring standards, etc?

Unless those standards were Silverlight, WCF and Entity framework, you've just thrown another tool that IT will hate into the mix.

From the intro page
"LightSwitch applications themselves are robust and are built on top of .NET technologies including Entities and WCF, the same technologies you already choose from when you write your apps today. Because the apps are built on top of .NET with VS you will be able to open your LightSwitch applications in the full version of Visual Studio and do advanced extensions."

Those key .Net technologies are VB or C#. I haven't seen what the final application and source looks like but let's face it - Lightswitch is a template-driven application builder for Visual Studio.

Some key points that make Lightswitch sound attractive:
- any database (including SQL, Sharepoint and Azure)
- can build desktop, WCF or browser-based applications
- extensible templates

Hank Fay jumped in with his analysis almost immediately, calling it a Bait & Switch, calling it an insult for domain-expert programmers:
"I have consulted with, and worked for, non-professional programmers for 12 years now, and if anything, the programs they create are more complex, in terms of data needs and UI needs, than what professional developers create. Oh, for sure, professional programmers can write complex algorithms, or wonderful feats of asynchronization communication over barriers of distance, protocol, and so forth. But when it comes to the business-end of the horse, one has to know the domain to understand the complexity, and that’s where the domain experts shine."

As someone who knows how important a good consultant is to moving an application along the right path, but I have also seen consultants or "experts" completely destroy a business opportunity, by either taking too long or not understanding the right concepts.

My big concern here is that Microsoft has added once again to the number of tools a business can use to extend or build applications with. You need to track something, do you use:
- Visual Studio (WinForms)
- Visual Studio (ASP.Net)
- SharePoint
- Dynamics
- Access
- Infopath
- LightSwitch
- Visual Studio (Office Extensions)
- Web Matrix
- MVC
- WPF/Silverlight

I know that LightSwitch is an extension from Visual Studio but promoting it as a separate product can make this tricky to decide.

Yes, each one has certain things that it does well - but remember when Microsoft's own teams had a rough time deciding between tools when it was just VS, Visual FoxPro and Access? Imagine what the discussion will sound like now.

As many developers now focus on development patterns such as MVC (MVP, MVVM, etc) to build best-of-breed applications, Lightswitch removes that process. As I noted above, until we see the actual code created, it's hard to judge how successful it will be.

I'm a big proponent for the right tool for the right job - but there isn't a lot of guidance as to where Lightswitch fits. That's going to be the big challenge.

3 comments:

Hank Fay said...

Hi Andrew,

when I say "domain expert" I mean the person doing the job, not an outside expert. I couldn't agree more on the issue of outside experts and consultants, unless they know their place. <s> I know mine: it is to facilitate, not direct or architect. I am most successful when my clients don't need me because I have given them the information and tools they need.

LightSwitch is not and in its present incarnation won't be one of those tools. Neither will C# or VB.Net. Put the right language in VS2010 and, while a bit of overkill, it would still be a great tool.

Your list (I like it) does show a sort of scattershot approach, doesn't it? My take on it is that there are those in Redmond with the power and the intention to have MS compete, but don't quite have the vision of what would help them with this market segment.

regards,

Hank

Steven Black said...

I have a good idea about where LightSwitch fits.

LightSwitch is perfect for developers who haven't been burned yet, or burned enough, by Microsoft bandwagon technologies or, quite simply, by Microsoft marooning developers by discontinuing products.

Andrew MacNeill said...

Zing!

In that case, the only thing that will save Lightswitch applications is that it is supposed to build a full VS application.