Visual Studio LightSwitch brings development to business managers

Microsoft's simplified, template-based version of Visual Studio will leverage Silverlight and the Windows Azure cloud environment

Microsoft is gearing up to release a version of its Visual Studio integrated developer environment that it promises will be easy enough for even business managers to use.

On August 23, the company will release a beta version of Visual Studio, called Visual Studio LightSwitch, aimed at simplifying the process of developing applications.

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"Professional developers are no longer the only people building business applications," said Dave Mendlen, Microsoft senior director of developer tools platform marketing.

Often, it is a business manager who will see a need for an office application and try to rig one together using tools like spreadsheets or word processing macros.

"LightSwitch gives business end users a simple way to create their own applications," he said.

The software will be a stripped-down version of Visual Studio bundled with a set of templates that cover a number of different enterprise processes, which a user can deploy to set up an application.

"You can start with one of these templates and add on top of it, using either Visual Basic or C#," Mendlen said. In some cases, the user may not have to add in code at all.

Applications built with LightSwitch can be run either on a local machine or on the Microsoft Azure cloud computing service, and be accessed with a browser using Microsoft Silverlight.

In addition to the templates, the software also offers a number of prebuilt functions, called experiences. Users must also identify a data source for the program, which can not only be a database like SQL Server or Microsoft Access, but even a SharePoint repository or an Excel or Microsoft Word file.

The user interface is unique insofar that development mode and run-time mode are not separated, meaning that as soon as a user makes a change it will show up in the test instance of the program being run, Mendlen said.

By using the Microsoft .Net framework, LightSwitch also creates programs in such a way that, should they become widely used within an office environment, they can be easily taken over by a Visual Studio developer for further enhancement and improved scalability.

Microsoft is still in the process of finalizing the templates it will include with the first release of LightSwitch.

Mendlen describe one possible template: a centralized contact list. A manager of 30 salespeople for instance could use LightSwitch to create a single contact list, instead of having each sales person maintaining a list through Excel or Microsoft Word.

Microsoft has not set the pricing for LightSwitch, though it will be modest enough to be appealing "to the average business user," Mendlen said. The company has not determined how long the beta period will last.

Microsoft is also working with other third-party Visual Studio tool vendors to help them build additional templates. Eventually, the company would like to build out a process that large enterprises to build out their own internal-use templates as well.

For the templates, Microsoft created a new XML (Extensible Markup language)-based file format, though Mendlen did not specify the name of this format.

Forrester Research analyst Jeffrey Hammond praised the LightSwitch's focus on providing a way to easily build Web and cloud-based applications.

Development environments for allowing business managers to build applications with little no coding is not a new concept -- think of IBM's Lotus Notes as an example -- but most of these products were client-server or local-machine based.

"In that spirit, there should be an easy way to build basic Web applications as it was to build Access applications back in the day," he said.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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