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Developers Struggle to Keep Abreast of the 'Orcas' Wave

Developers struggle to form a sharp picture of what to expect from Orcas.

Microsoft has been talking about the next version of Visual Studio, code-named "Orcas," for at least two years, and releasing Community Technology Preview builds for the past 12 months. And yet, developers struggle to form a sharp picture of what to expect from Orcas.

"It's really a science project right now," acknowledges Prashant Sridharan, Microsoft group product manager of Visual Studio. "It's really for the people way out there." And the bits and pieces of Orcas that programmers have seen "may not have been all that useful for developers," Sridharan admits.

Also in flux is the Orcas schedule. Microsoft has not publicly contradicted reports that the next version of Visual Studio is expected to ship in 2007, but there's a strong chance it might not ship until 2008. That's a long way out for a tool set destined to be the primary development platform for applications and Web sites designed for the Windows Vista, Office 2007 and AJAX platforms. (In the meantime, Microsoft has filled the gap with Visual Studio 2005 extensions for the .NET Framework 3.0.)

Within the next few months, when Microsoft begins releasing more feature-complete Orcas test builds -- as well as the first (and possibly only) full-fledged beta -- developers will get a better feel for what Orcas will deliver, Sridharan says. Among the features widely expected to make it into the final release: the LINQ extensions to the .NET Framework that will provide language-integrated query, set and transform operations; the ASP.NET AJAX framework; designers for each component of the .NET Framework 3.0; and an enhanced version of Dotfuscator Community Edition technology.

"I'm looking for two things in Orcas: LINQ, which includes new versions of the C# and VB programming languages, plus improved data access libraries; and integration of WPF [Windows Presentation Foundation] tools so developers can design XAML [XML Applied Markup Language] in a WYSIWYG manner," says Greg DeMichillie, an analyst with the Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft research outfit. "They know that shipping Vista and WPF isn't enough. They need to get tools into the hands of corporate developers as soon as possible. My guess is that they will pare back other work in order to concentrate on those two items and ship sooner rather than later."

The elements of Orcas that seem the most baked, according to testers, are those dealing with the Windows Communications Foundation (WCF) and Windows Workflow Foundation (WF) pillars of the .NET Framework 3.0.

Rockford Lhotka, principal technology evangelist for Magenic Technologies Inc."I've been pleased with the WCF support, but I think that there's more that could be done in the future," says Rockford Lhotka, the principal technology evangelist for Magenic Technologies Inc., a national consultancy headquartered in Minneapolis. "WCF represents the unification of Microsoft's service-oriented, client-server and asynchronous communications technologies into a single application programming interface. Thus far the Visual Studio focus has mostly been around the service-oriented capabilities. I hope to see some stronger support for client/server application architectures."

Lhotka, who is also both a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional and regional director, is bullish about the WF Designer capabilities that are part of the Orcas builds.

"WF has the most complete and mature tooling in VS. Their workflow designer is very nice, and once you wrap your head around the idea of workflow, it's very useful," he says. "To me that's been the hardest challenge: switching from an object-oriented mindset to thinking in terms of a workflow."

The WPF support in Orcas is still a work in transition, however, developers say. "I was never an HTML jockey, and hope not to be a XAML jockey, either. Unfortunately, the WPF support in Orcas doesn't get you far enough that you can avoid working directly with the XAML," Lhotka says.

Microsoft's end goal of enabling WPF developers using Orcas and designers using the forthcoming suite of Microsoft Expression tools to work together is admirable, says Nathan Dunlap, a former member of Microsoft's WPF development team who now is a senior interactive designer at IdentityMine Inc. in Tacoma, Wash.

"Having Visual Studio support for XAML-based applications is the glue that keeps designers and developers talking more productively than ever before," Dunlap says. "The fact that I can open a C# project in Expression Blend and open that same project in Visual Studio and have a similar WYSIWYG editing experience means that our developers and designers can work in parallel or at the least have a much cleaner hand off experience than we have had in application development workflows of the past."

"I struggle with the idea that companies will pay for a designer when building line-of-business apps," Lhotka says. "So either Visual Studio will have to get better WPF designer support, or I fear WPF will struggle to gain acceptance as a tool for building business applications."

Dunlap finds the WYSIWYG view of XAML pages inside of Visual Studio very useful, with his favorite Orcas feature being IntelliSense for XAML-what he calls a "must have" feature that's missing in Expression Blend.

"Having both Expression and Visual Studio open at the same time on the same project is a fantastic way to develop with both a powerful WYSIWYG tool and a robust development environment," he says.

Microsoft must speed up the loading of XAML pages, Dunlap acknowledges, and improved support for mark-up-based debugging would be welcome. But Dunlap thinks the Orcas wave is "trending in the right direction."

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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