New Technology Offers Dev Challenges, UI Improvements

Developers who work on the UI side of advanced apps must learn new technology for forms-based dev to improve the user experience.

Many of us spent the year 2001 telling the software development community to get ready for this new thing called .NET. It was the first platform designed from the ground up for the Internet. For many in the industry, including most folks at Microsoft, this had an obvious implication: Applications done in .NET would have a browser-based interface.

The first slide about Windows Forms I ever saw from Microsoft started with a bullet point: "You can still do Windows applications." Not exactly a ringing endorsement for an alternative to the browser.

But some of us in the community saw a lot more potential. We believed that there were certain applications in which the user experience had a high priority. And we believed that .NET solved the problems of distributed forms-based systems, which were data transport and deployment. .NET included good options for both, and we began telling the world about "smart client" applications.

Microsoft caught on a couple of years later, and now smart client is all the rage. But just as it has become an acceptable alternative to the browser, it's time to prepare for another transition. New technologies, some here now, and some on the way, are blurring the distinction between browser-based and smart-client interfaces.

These include Ajax, which allows browser-based systems to be more responsive, plug-ins such as Flash that allow graphics and drag-and-drop in the browser, and soon-to-come technologies such as Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF).

If an application is launched with a browser, but then loads an XAML page with some attached code that gives it 3D behavior, is that still a browser-based application? Or is it a smart client? Or is it something else? Our terminology isn't even ready for the types of user interfaces that we will see in the next few years.

If the terminology isn't ready, the decision-making expertise isn't ready, either. I suspect many combinations of technologies will be tried, and we'll eventually settle on the most successful designs and technologies, discarding what doesn't work as well.

You can expect to see considerable evidence of this transition at this year's Tech•Ed. Look for announcements and demonstrations of Windows Presentation Foundation running on the Macintosh and Linux. That variant of WPF is called WPF/e, and might eventually allow XAML to displace HTML for some Web serving scenarios.

Realizing the renewed importance of Windows Forms, especially for corporate line-of-business applications, Microsoft will also be reassuring us that Windows Forms is still viable and important. Expect some emphasis on interoperability between Windows Forms and WPF, allowing you to have some confidence that investment in Windows Forms applications today won't quickly lose its value when Vista and WinFX appear next year.

The renewed emphasis on forms-based development also means Microsoft isn't standing still on new features in that technology. You can expect to see some announcements about new Windows Forms features that fill in the existing gaps in forms-based development. The recent reorganization and unification of the user interface teams at Microsoft will promote the migration of the best features across user interface lines. For example, some of the best features of ASP.NET should become more available in Windows Forms, and if we're lucky, we'll see some announcements along those lines as early as this week at Tech-Ed.

The next few years will be challenging for developers who work on the user interface side of advanced applications. There is a lot of new technology you'll have to learn about, and you'll have to make some choices on UI technology in situations where the right choice isn't obvious. But the good news is that you'll have options to make applications easier to use and more responsive. Developers write applications for users, and it's our job to make their jobs easier, even when it makes our job more difficult.

About the Author

About the Author

Billy Hollis is an author and software developer from Nashville, Tennessee. Billy is co-author of the first book ever published on Visual Basic .NET, .NET Programming on the Public Beta. He has written many articles, and is a frequent speaker at conferences. He is the Regional Director of Developer Relations in Nashville for Microsoft, and runs a consulting company focusing on Microsoft .NET.

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