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Microsoft rebuilds .Net tools

The company hopes sneak peeks into upcoming versions and new additions to its Visual Studio.Net tools will lure developers.

Microsoft on Tuesday will offer a glimpse at future versions of its Visual Studio.Net development tools and highlight a number of additions to the product line.

At a developers conference in San Francisco this week, Microsoft will also seek to build developer loyalty by detailing case studies of companies using Visual Studio.Net. Released about a year ago, Visual Studio.Net is a bundle of tools that lets developers work with a variety of programming languages to build applications that adhere to Web services standards.

Microsoft is in an ongoing competition with Java-oriented companies to attract developers to their respective tools, particularly as the adoption of Web services grows. Applications built around Web services protocols can more easily share data and processing between disparate applications than did previous programming methods.

In April, Microsoft plans to release Visual Studio.Net 2003, which is updated to exploit the built-in Web services capabilities in Microsoft's Windows Server 2003. The company this week released the second and final testing version of Visual Studio.Net 2003, which is code-named Everett.

One of the case studies that Microsoft will showcase this week comes from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The philanthropic organization, which serves disadvantaged children, chose Visual Studio.Net and the accompanying .Net Framework to build an application to streamline the grant approval process. Henry Dennig, director of technology and information management at the foundation, and his consulting partners, said that two of the key reasons the organization chose .Net were the productivity that Microsoft's development tools provide and the improved interoperability from Web services.

"Our existing system based on a Microsoft Exchange data store didn't give us the ability to manipulate data as well as we'd like. Because of the .Net Framework, we were able to tie in other applications more efficiently--four different systems at the same time," Dennig said.

During the conference, Microsoft will also show off an early version of the follow-up to Visual Studio.Net 2003. Expected to be completed in 2004, the next version of Visual Studio.Net, which is code-named Whidbey, will take advantage of improvements in an upcoming version of Microsoft's SQL Server data, code-named Yukon.

Yukon will let businesses more easily store and retrieve different types of data, notably XML-formatted documents. XML is fast becoming the lingua franca for formatting and exchanging data over the Net. A test version of Yukon is slated to be available in the first half of this year.

A host of enhancements
With the Whidbey update to Visual Studio.Net, developers will be able to use a number of programming languages to write applications that run in SQL Server. Right now, most programs communicate with database servers using the Structured Query Language (SQL), an industry standard for database queries. With Yukon, Microsoft will enhance its SQL Server database so that it can house Microsoft's Common Language Runtime (CLR), which allows programs written in several languages to access SQL Server data. Adding the CLR to SQL Server will lower the skill level required to write database programs, Microsoft executives said.

Microsoft is also looking to boost the application modeling capabilities in Visual Studio.Net. Software tools companies are looking to fill out their development suites with modeling and design tools in order to appeal to larger companies that have more complex development projects.

Whidbey will introduce a Web services-based business-process modeling tool, code-named Whitehorse, according to Microsoft. Application designers will be able to model a business process with the Whitehorse tool and more quickly build applications that involve a multi-step business process. Analysts say business process workflow software, also called choreography or orchestration software, is one of the most important initiatives in Web services standards this year.

In an effort to accelerate Visual Studio.Net development, Microsoft will release five Web application templates that give programmers a starting point for their own company-specific applications. The five ASP.Net Starter Kits include the source code for e-commerce, portal, threaded discussion, Web reporting and time-tracking applications, according to Microsoft.

In addition, the company this week will release a testing version of Visual Studio for Office, a programming application targeted at professional developers for building applications based on Microsoft's Office 11 suite of desktop applications.

On Tuesday, the company will also unveil partnerships that complement Visual Studio.Net. Borland Software will integrate its Optimizeit performance measurement into Microsoft's development application. Similarly, Web services management start-up AmberPoint will tie its product for monitoring application performance to Visual Studio.Net.

Other third-party software providers that have created Visual Studio.Net add-ons include Groove Networks, which released a toolkit for building collaborative applications with Visual Studio.Net. Also, eHelp has developed an authoring tool to create help files for .Net applications, and NetManage will tie its mainframe data-access tool to Microsoft's programming application.

Microsoft's efforts to build more developer-friendly tools are part of its ongoing battle with Java-based software makers, such as IBM, Sun Microsystems and Oracle. Adoption of .Net by third-party software providers is helping fuel expected .Net growth this year, according to market research from Evans Data.

A survey of professional developers found that one-third of systems integrators and value-added resellers expect that more than half of their applications will be written for .Net by next year. The number of developers who say that more than half of their company's applications will be written for .Net is expected to climb from 12 percent now to 25 percent a year from now, according to Evans Data.