Software development suite is less than sum of its parts

The Microsoft Corp. suite would be a loser if judged solely on its current integrated
development environment. But developers are likely to value its standalone tools more than
its nascent integration features--as well they should.


Priced at $1,500, Visual Studio would be a steal even without integrated functions or
shared interfaces.


Sold separately, its eight development tools would cost more than $5,000 each. Here's
what you get: Visual Basic 5.0 Enterprise Edition, Visual C++ Enterprise Edition, Visual
FoxPro 5.0 Professional Edition, Visual J++ 1.1 Professional Edition, Visual InterDev,
Visual SourceSafe 5.0, SQL Server 6.5 Developer Edition and Transaction Server Developer
Edition.


This arsenal will meet almost any development challenge, including multitier
client-server systems, World Wide Web applications, Web-to-client-server integration and
component construction.


Gone are the days when programmers identify themselves solely as, say, Cobol or C++
coders. As component standards have evolved, the need for multilanguage expertise also has
grown. Today, developers deal with broad platforms such as Unix or the Web.


While working with Visual Studio, I was struck by its emphasis on Microsoft's Component
Object Model and ActiveX technologies. All the tools in Visual Studio either make or
consume COM components.


The suite provides tools for each language that you can use to make your own objects.
Or you can drop in third-party, field-hardened ActiveX controls.


COM is more than just a way to reuse code. Component objects and ActiveX cut
development time and cost, support high-speed data access and work in cross-platform,
multitier, distributed systems.


Although an integrated development environment is convenient, the strength of Visual
Studio lies in improvements to the individual tools. Visual Basic 5.0 has a native code
compiler, implicit multithreading and integration with Microsoft Transaction Server.


Novice or occasional Visual Basic programmers will like IntelliSense, a collection of
help tools in the code editor. With the QuickTips, DataTips, List Members and List
Constants, you can look up syntax or get context-sensitive help for object model
construction. The friendly environment motivated me to take a crack at developing
applications.


Kevin Potter, a Visual Basic developer and president of Cinecom Corp. of Woodbridge,
Va., showed me some Visual Basic tricks. I found the object-oriented concepts difficult to
grasp, and it bothered me that the code didn't always execute in linear fashion as it does
with C++ or scripting languages. By the end of the day, though, I had managed to write a
custom splash screen for my Windows programs and a chessboard that tracked mouse movements
from square to square.


Because Visual Basic configures the working windows, called forms, with functional
controls, you can focus on what the application does and not hassle with containers.


Even so, I was surprised at how hard it was to produce seemingly simple effects, such
as multicolor text characters. Visual Basic's rich text format uses hundreds of characters
to produce the effects. The work-around is to format your text in another application and
then capture it graphically. That's why there are so many graphics in Visual Basic
programs.


Applications created with Visual Basic 5.0 perform better than those created with
earlier versions, but Microsoft research indicates they execute about 20 percent slower
than identical programs written in C++.


Some developers get around this by creating most of an application in Visual Basic,
then writing big data routines as C++ component objects linked to the main program.


Visual C++ is still the development tool of choice if you demand language flexibility
and performance tuning. Improvements to the C++ compiler have cut application size by 5
percent to 10 percent. Language syntax extensions let Visual C++ programmers use prebuilt
components in the same way Visual Basic and Visual InterDev developers can.


Likewise, the Visual J++ development environment has one of the fastest compilers
around and a terrific byte code debugger. You can build components and expose the
functions to ActiveX interfaces, or build pure Java applets that will run on any platform
with a Java virtual machine.


The Visual FoxPro 5.0 development environment has ActiveX extensibility that makes it
possible to build ActiveX components in the FoxPro database language. The components can
be used with Web applications or in multitier solutions.


Visual InterDev has everything necessary to publish and maintain Active Server Pages on
a Web site. It supports team publishing, site management and version control through
FrontPage 97 and Visual SourceSafe 5.0.


If you want to use FrontPage or Image Composer in the InterDev environment, be sure to
run the InterDev installation routine for the applications even if you already have them
loaded on your disk. You can't use them from within InterDev without running the routine.


Visual InterDev builds connections to Open Database Connectivity-compliant databases
through Data Access Objects 3.5, Remote Data Objects 2.0 or Active Data Objects. Tools
such as DataView, Query Designer, Database Designer, programmable access components and
wizards make it easier to write database-driven Web applications.


Visual J++, Visual C++ and Visual InterDev share a common environment and can host file
formats produced by any of the tools, as well as Hypertext Markup Language and graphics
files.


In this shared environment, you can verify and debug ActiveX server component
interfaces and the code that calls the components. Visual C++ programmers can even debug
controls or applications created with Visual Basic.


The Visual Basic scripting language does macro scripting for the environment. VB Script
is the default scripting language for the Active Server Pages engine. It's a subset of the
Visual Basic language, so experienced VB programmers will find it easy.


The Visual Studio command bar and customizable tool bars are styled after Microsoft
Office 97 with configurable, dockable menu bars. You can view Web pages directly with an
integrated browser based on Internet Explorer 3.0, or you can preview them in Netscape
Navigator or other browsers.


If Microsoft had marketed this tool collection as a software bundle, Visual Studio 97
would easily have earned an A on value alone. As a suite, it gets a B, though it clearly
has the potential to evolve into an A+ product.


Not so long ago, Microsoft led the industry in cutting the cost of an office suite to
the price of a single application. The same thing seems to be happening now for
development tools.


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