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Component Makers Adjust to New Platforms

Visual Studio 2008's arrival shakes up the scene for component makers.

Corporate development shops have long turned to component vendors like ComponentOne LLC, Infragistics Inc. and Telerik Inc. to purchase proven code modules for software projects. But the availability of Microsoft's Visual Studio (VS) 2008 and some new component tools from upstarts promise to shake up the market this year.

Because VS 2008 integrates tooling for next-generation technologies including Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and Silverlight, developers will expect component tools to leverage the new capabilities, says Jason Bloomberg, managing partner for marketing analysis firm ZapThink LLC.

Bloomberg says a number of component vendors are already responding with new wares that target the new platforms.

"There are definitely some component vendors who are leveraging these technologies," Bloomberg says, singling out Infragistics as an example. "It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. They're all working the timing of their Vista deployments."

Suppliers offer a broad range of components -- in addition to underlying platforms -- for Windows Forms, ASP.NET and, more recently, AJAX-based application development.

Now dev managers shopping for pre-built code modules for their nascent WPF and Silverlight projects may find themselves looking to new sources for components. At least that's what Kurt Brockett, vice president at component maker and consultancy IdentityMine Inc., hopes. He says Microsoft opened access to WPF early, making it possible for his company to get up to speed.

"Because of that steep learning curve [with WPF], there's also a steep learning curve for component vendors as well. They need to learn the technology enough to offer solutions for purchase to their customers," Brockett says.

Jason Beres, vice president of product management at leading component maker Infragistics, says mastering XAML took time.

Jason Beres"We've had WPF controls out in some form -- alpha, beta, whatever -- for three years, maybe longer," Beres says. "We're good at it now. Even though we did really struggle in the beginning because it was really different creating for Windows Forms than WPF."

Internal dev shops choosing to build their own components face similar challenges.

"Yes, the learning curve is steep for WPF, even more than [for] LINQ," writes Marc Temkin, of DocsLink Inc. in Chicago. "If you can 'get' the concepts behind why and when to use XAML, where the C# comes in, how to incorporate generics and understand the notification concepts (INotifyPropertyChanged) then you're on your way to writing a successful WPF application."

Despite complexity that Temkin says makes his team "feel like we're back in graduate school," he says WPF has proven itself to be a more stable platform than Windows Forms for sophisticated GUI development.

Incumbent's Burden
For smaller firms like IdentityMine, the switch to WPF and Silverlight makes it possible to release code modules that match or exceed the value provided by larger players, says Brockett. In November, IdentityMine launched the Blendables Essentials Mix of 10 Silverlight controls, which were developed in the course of the company's consulting engagements. The firm plans to offer additional, purpose-built "mixes" as it continues to build reusable components for consulting clients.

At Xceed Software Inc., executives for the Montreal-area company targeted WPF as a way to gain an edge on established competition.

"We thought how to really get ahead of everyone else would be to choose the next-generation platform and get ahead on that one," says Odi Kosmatos, vice president of research and development for Xceed. "So far so good. We came out with the first WPF control a couple months before Infragistics."

Xceed focused on doing one thing very well -- a WPF data grid. Kosmatos says his firm targeted data grid functionality because it's a widely used feature that can be difficult to implement. It also helped that Microsoft failed to deliver a data grid with WPF.

Infragistics' Beres is hardly surprised to see boutique component vendors doing "interesting things" with WPF and Silverlight. But he says there's no huge rush by component vendors to switch over to XAML.

"We don't see it. We're not seeing this huge rush," he says, adding that component vendors that didn't start work with WPF early "are really playing catch up now."

Two of a Kind
One thing that stands to benefit both internal dev shops and component vendors alike is the shared heritage of WPF and Silverlight.

"Going from ASP.NET Web applications to Windows Forms was a very big jump. Going from Silverlight to WPF, your source code might even compile," says Kosmatos.

"That's how we can make a Silverlight control a lot faster than someone who hasn't done WPF," Kosmatos continues. "We've been developing the WPF control for two years straight. If we take four or five folks from that team and put them with four or five new developers, half of that team is experienced. They can hit the ground running."

Companies that deploy WPF and Silverlight components shouldn't expect the products to remove all the complexity involved in the transition.

"I don't think that it changes the need to understand how properties, events, commands and binding work," Temkin says of component products. "If a development team can avoid user controls and get increased functionality from third-party controls, then they can skip the time requirements to understand the infrastructure required by user controls. However, they still need to deal with a great deal of advanced concepts such as styles, control templates, binding and commands to develop a reasonable understanding of WPF."

About the Author

Michael Desmond is an editor and writer for 1105 Media's Enterprise Computing Group.

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