Review: Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition

Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition Beta 1
pricing TBD
Redmond, Washington

In some ways Visual Web Developer is the most interesting of the new line of "Express" products being previewed now by Microsoft, because it doesn't have a direct analog in the Visual Studio .NET 2003 lineup. And yet, the notion of a dedicated IDE for Web development is hardly new at Microsoft; they tried this with Visual InterDev a few years ago, and there are certainly eerie similarities here if you remember that far back. There's the same notion that every bit of Web development can be done in the IDE, that everything from data access to page design should be handled by easy tools. On the other hand, Microsoft has learned a few things along the way as well. VWD, for example, does not appear to butcher HTML that you've taken the time to lay out the way that you want it.

Of course, "Web development" here really means ASP.NET development. You have your choice of Visual Basic, C#, or Visual J# as a coding language. Once you build a new project, you'll be in an IDE that is clearly Visual Studio with some incremental development (and the inevitable new color scheme). One nice new touch is the "Common Tasks" menu that flies out from controls in design view. For a grid, for example, you can use this menu to enable sorting or paging with a single click, or to change data bindings. We are clearly moving towards a world where every pixel in the IDE has a separate meaning, but so long as they're useful I don't really mind this.

An interesting addition to previous ASP.NET releases is the built-in support for Web Parts. These are the sort of moveable, customizable pieces of functionality you find in portals like SharePoint. While I'm not convinced that such a thing is really so common that it needs to be built into the base product, it's certainly an accomplishment to have made it available in a relatively easy design mode. Also new is support for Master Pages - design templates that let you enforce consistent look and feel on pages across a site without undue pain.

There's also been a lot of work here on data binding, with a dizzying array of options for binding just by plopping things on a page, writing classes to handle binding, using Wizards to hook things up to a data source, and so on. I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, most developers will be able to find a data binding design strategy that suits them here. On the other, this part of the product seems likely to be overwhelming to the target "hobbyist" audience.

There are certainly things not to like here (though who knows whether they'll be in the final shipping code). For example, the dependency on folders having the special names "Code" and "Data" to hold particular types of components strikes me as daffy. And, of course, it's a beta product, so some things won't work right and you can't deploy any sites you build on the Internet. But VWD is definitely mature enough to start exploring right now. The interesting question will be whether the release version succeeds in attracting new Web developers to the Microsoft tool stack instead of the open-source alternatives.


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