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Testers, start your engines!

For months now I've been suggesting that most developers should not touch the early builds of Visual Studio 2005 with a stick. Microsoft has released a series of alpha and "Community Technology Preview" builds that, while interesting, were far too unstable to actually do anything useful with. But at Tech Ed Europe last week, Microsoft unveiled the Beta 1 bits for Visual Studio 2005, and now it's time to put the stick away and start typing.

To get started, visit the beta Visual Studio 2005 Developer Center, which lives on MSDN's "lab" site. You'll find a link to Beta 1, but it won't actually do you any good directly. Right now, Beta 1 is only available to MSDN subscribers via the regular downloads site. But there's another alternative for everyone (MSDN or not), and that's the Express products:

These "Express" products are designed as entry-level versions of Visual Studio to help hobbyists and others get started with .NET development without spending a ton of money. Pricing appears to not be settled yet, but it seems a safe bet that they'll be well under the $100 mark, and there may be some way to get a copy for free. This would make sense if you view them as in part a reaction to the LAMP (Linux/Apache/MySQL/Perl-PHP-Python) open source development world. But that doesn't make them less worthwhile, of course. Visual Web Developer Express is specifically for building ASP.NET sites; it's a product all to itself. And SQL Server Express is the SQL Server 2005-based replacement for MSDE, supporting larger databases, xcopy development, and with no query load governor.

Although I haven't yet installed the full Visual Studio 2005 product (it's just too darned large for my connection speed to handle the download, so I'm waiting for a CD version), I have played with a couple of the Express products. Although they're not ready for release, they are ready for the average .NET developer to take a look. At this point, we're somewhere between 6 months and a year from release, which is well within the planning horizon for many organizations. So pick the product of your choice, install a copy, and try to port your existing code. Learn about some of the new features. Take a look at SQL Server Express for a data store. By preparing now, you'll be ready to jump when the time comes.

Of course, you need to remember reasonable cautions. First, these products are not licensed for redistribution; you can't ship a solution on a CD or make a Web site available that you create with these tools. Second, they are beta, and will break other things. Don't install them on a machine that you care about. The best bet is a separate, dedicated computer. Failing that, use a VMware or Virtual PC virtual machine for testing. You should absolutely plan on reformatting any test computer at the end of the beta period.

I'm still looking at new features and forming opinions, but it seems clear to me that this is the most significant Visual Studio release yet, and that it's ready to work with. Have fun!

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