Can Visual Studio LightSwitch grab 'casual' developers?

Microsoft has tried and failed with easy-does-it development tools before. Will LightSwitch be any different?

Microsoft has had a checkered history in the "casual" development tool market. The company hit home runs with the original Access database and the original Visual Basic. But many of its other runners have been left on base.

Microsoft acquired Fox Software in 1992, grew FoxPro into Visual FoxPro, and abandoned it in 2007, to much wailing from FoxPro devotees. Access 2010, widely expected to have built-in Web support, needs SharePoint 2010 for that function, which is a show-stopper for many small and medium-size businesses. PopFly, an interesting Silverlight-based Web application and mashup construction kit aimed primarily at the educational market, was launched in May 2007 and discontinued in August 2009.

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Visual Studio LightSwitch, scheduled to go into beta on August 23, takes a different tack. Rather than being a completely stand-alone product, it is an easy-to-use, separately purchased front end to the highly sophisticated Visual Studio 2010 IDE. Where Visual Studio 2010 offers a wide assortment of languages and targets (often mind-boggling when the combinations are considered), Visual Studio LightSwitch will offer two languages, VB and C#, and three targets, Windows desktop, Web (Silverlight), and Azure Cloud. Where Visual Studio 2010 offers connectivity to virtually any conceivable database or Office technology and any kind of multilayer or distributed application topology through any kind of protocol, Visual Studio LightSwitch supports SQL Server, SQL Azure, SharePoint, Access, Word, and Excel data and uses an Entity Data Model.

For the casual or business developer, the hook will be the assortment of pre-built templates supplied with the product that can be customized without writing any code. For the IT department that winds up having to maintain and continue the development of the working LightSwitch application, the attraction will be that LightSwitch can be imported into a full Visual Studio 2010 environment for serious enhancement by a real programmer.

LightSwitch could challenge many other easy-to-use business application development environments, starting with Access 2010, and continuing with FileMaker 11, Iron Speed Designer 7, and my own company's Alpha Five 10.5. But will it be the death of any of them?

I would say, from a historical perspective, that's highly unlikely. Each of these products can do some things better and faster than LightSwitch as currently planned. Every one of them has been honed over multiple versions to meet the real needs of casual developers who know their own business. None of the product managers planning new versions of these products are ignorant, stupid, or in denial about what Microsoft can do when it gets serious about filling a niche.

From a programmer's point of view, Entity Data Models are elegant -- but can you imagine explaining them to the business owner who struggles to write Excel macros? And from a business point of view, the association of LightSwitch with Visual Studio may simply be too geeky to be considered an advantage.

At any rate, we shall see. It will certainly be an interesting product to watch, and I intend to beta test it carefully, both to see how it could be useful to me and other serious developers, and to see how my company's products could find a viable competitive niche if LightSwitch actually becomes wildly successful.

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