Visual Studio LightSwitch: Will it emerge from sleeper status?

Visual Studio LightSwitch: Will it emerge from sleeper status?

Summary: The first version of Microsoft's Visual Studio LightSwitch dev tool has achieved only modest traction in the market. Here's a set of recommendations from an ardent supporter of the product.

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TOPICS: Microsoft
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I’m taking a couple weeks off before the busiest part of Microsoft’s 2012 kicks into full gear. But never fear: The Microsoft watching will go on while I’m gone. I’ve asked a few illustrious members of the worldwide Microsoft community to share their insights via guest posts on a variety of topics — from Windows Phone, to Hyper-V. Today’s entry is all about Visual Studio LightSwitch and is authored by Andrew Brust, who pens ZDNet Big on Data blog.

Once upon a time, Microsoft had a product called Visual Basic. It allowed for rapid development of data-centric business applications and gave rise to a huge ecosystem of custom controls. Millions of programmers were attracted to VB for its low barrier to entry, as it required very little code to produce relatively capable applications. And many developers stayed because VB also permitted significant coding once developers were motivated to write it.

That was a winning combination and one Microsoft effectively gave up in 2002, when it publicly released .NET. VB was demoted to a mere programming language supported by a new and more vast development framework. Yes, it had better enterprise application chops than did classic VB, and so it competed well with Java. But it forfeited the low barrier to entry and high productivity that made VB so popular.

Meanwhile, platforms like WordPress came along with large ecosystems of plug-ins and the ability to host code written in PHP. In Microsoft's zeal to win the enterprise, it lost its franchise in the "productivity programmer" category, one that it practically invented.

Welcome back, Microsoft.

All this changed last summer when Microsoft introduced Visual Studio LightSwitch, a product which gave Microsoft a low-barrier-to-entry development option that is nonetheless based on the core .NET stack.  While Microsoft Access offers productivity and data-centrism, it does not generate n-tier applications based on core .NET technologies, capable of running on Azure, Microsoft's cloud platform.

I've been a supporter of LightSwitch since the mere idea of it was in incubation in Redmond and I am the author of the five-part whitepaper series that Microsoft features on the LightSwitch Web site.

It's been the better part of a year since LightSwitch's public release last summer, and the product's traction so far has been lackluster. Productivity programmers don't seem to have much awareness of LightSwitch and enterprise developers have been dismissive of it. Like VB, LightSwitch supports custom controls (and several other extension types) but support from the commercial component vendors has been mixed.  Needless to say, I'm disappointed by this, and I have a few ideas on how it might change.

The second version of LightSwitch is now in Beta, along with the rest of Visual Studio version 11. The first version had ability to produce Silverlight applications that run on the Windows desktop and in the browser, both on-premises and in the cloud. LightSwitch v2 will support all of that and will add the ability to expose data services -- RESTful Web APIs based on Microsoft's Open Data Protocol (OData).

The best part about these data services is they will be produced almost intrinsically. No code will be required and yet it will be easy to add code that implements sophisticated business logic. Combine this with LightSwitch's ability to run on Windows Azure, and the product suddenly becomes a powerhouse on the server. hat moves it past filling the ten-year-old line-of-business app productivity gap. Instead LightSwitch will now be a productivity programmer's tool for the Web and cloud data world, enabling back-end services for mobile apps and enterprise apps written in any language. I'm excited.

But more needs to be done.LightSwitch is a product that deserves to succeed. And that's why Microsoft needs to change and improve its game as it evolves, evangelizes and markets the product.

Below is a to-do list for LightSwitch's product and marketing teams. I offer these ideas simultaneously in support and in constructive criticism.

1. Market to productivity developers, a group that includes everyone from power users in Excel, to WordPress/Drupal/Joomla developers and even JavaScript jocks.  Work with the Office team, go to non-Microsoft Web developer conferences and push content beyond MSDN (the Microsoft Developer Network) to SlideShare and YouTube. Get the analysts and press involved. Go mainstream.

2. Market differently to enterprise developers: instead of suggesting they change the way they work, show them how LightSwitch can support their work. Show them how to build data services with LightSwitch for their full-fledged .NET front-end application. Or show them how their .NET skills allow them to create extensions to the core LightSwitch product. Ease pain points for, and support, enterprise developers.  Don't burden them. Evangelize; don't proselytize.

3. Stoke the ecosystem. Release a variety of free extensions but leave room for improvement and enhancement and solicit that from the community. Provide recognition for community influencers and make co-op marketing funds available for commercial third party extension vendors. Get a LightSwitch-focused online magazine running, add social features and gamify it. Host a virtual conference at least twice a year and provide sustained promotion of the content in between events.

4. Enhance LightSwitch's data visualization capabilities, both through core capabilities and influencing third party extensions. LightSwitch's data centrism makes it a great tool for this scenario, but a few more pieces need to be there to make it a sweet spot. Connect LightSwitch to major BI and data warehouse platforms.  Work with the Excel and Microsoft BI teams for "better together" integration. Then target power users with market messaging around this (see point 1, above).

5. Integrate LightSwitch with Office and Office 365.  There could be a ton of synergy between these products, and some extensions have already emerged that tie LightSwitch with Word, Excel and PowerPoint.  But there needs to be core first-class support built right into the product.

6. Go mobile. While LightSwitch's Silverlight applications will run in the desktop version of Internet Explorer on Intel- and AMD-based Windows 8 tablets, they won't run on the Metro side of Windows 8 (and so will not run at all on ARM-based tablets) and they won't run on iOS or Android devices either. Fix this, and promote the fix like crazy. Because mobile + cloud + data services is the holy trinity of software today.

LightSwitch has a lot of potential and version 2 will provide even more.  But raw product capabilities are not enough. Savvy strategy and marketing are necessary to make the product successful. The market needs this product, but Microsoft needs to show the market why.

Andrew Brust pens ZDNet's own "Big on Data" blog as well as the back page "Redmond Review" column for Visual Studio Magazine. Brust has worked closely with Microsoft and its technologies for almost 20 years, beginning with version 1 of the company's venerable Visual Basic development tool.  He now runs a company called Blue Badge Insights, which assists Microsoft partners and customers in working more productively with Microsoft.

Topic: Microsoft

About

Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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17 comments
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  • .net winform is more prodcuctive than VB

    So why do we need LightSwitch?
    FADS_z
  • Azure is not a plus

    The price for entry on Azure does not help a user dabble in the tool and if you don't use Azure your fringe user probably doesn't want to responsible for a server. If you have a data service you will have a compute and web instance, database and access control. So just to get rolling you are spending about $60 (once the access control special is done). Involving hard cash is different than when dealing with VB where you were working over several months on a project (because it during your "free" time), letting a few people use it for a few months and then letting it virally spread.
    jfoegen@...
    • Azure with MSDN

      Isn't Azure free for MSDN Subscribers (to a point.)
      if you are developing for Windows and don't have MSDN then you should be. All the software and updates you could want on everything Microsoft.
      sysop-dr
  • Championing the Citizen Developer

    Bang on Andrew!

    I work on the front lines, every day, with those same productivity developers you talk about. Most of these latent developers haven't even heard of LightSwitch, but as soon as I start talking about it, they get very interested, real fast!

    Like you I was drawn to the value that LightSwitch proposed to offer. A few years back I read a forum thread that made mention of Microsoft working on a non-programmer development tool, code-named KittyHawk. I was immediately drawn to the opportunity that something like this tool could offer me - help me create professional software cheaper and faster - hence my blog at PaulSPatterson.com.

    A few years and an RTM later, LightSwitch has been graced us with its presence, albeit with an unclear focus on who it is being marketed to. Maybe it is by design that the marketing engine has not (yet) kicked in for the audience that the product is thought to be created for. I'm pretty sure that Microsoft has put some strategic thinking behind this.

    For what it's worth, I have talked to a lot of people who are either sponsor or influencer type stakeholders in software projects. The percentage of all these same people that are interested in and considering the use of LightSwitch in their current and future projects is... 100%. Considering that a lot of these people are "old-school" technologists, the expressed interest alone speaks volumes.

    Yes, I am a champion of LightSwitch. I am not a Microsoft neophite, but I do recognise when something is going to have a relatively large impact on the industry. LightSwitch is going to have an impact. It is going to help me help my customers achieve their successes, and that will help me achieve mine.

    Cheers,

    Paul
    www.PaulSPatterson.com
    PaulPatterson
  • VB is alive and well and living in MS Office

    Just called VBA and everyone with MS Office has the development environment.

    With that, it is easy to develop utilities under the radar, and so avoid the onerous project overhead.
    Patanjali
  • When do I need LightSwitch if I already have Visual Studio?

    There is nothing in the posts about LightSwitch but marketing bla-bla. It is very similar to what works with gadgets - blurred bundaries between hardware, software, and applications allow to sell "experience" for a triple price. Unfortunately, developers are still more competent then average Joe, even though MS is working on that.

    Microsoft failed to communicate their LightSwitch message to me. Is it a library, an IDE application, a framework? I remember I watched the Jason Zander's introductory video and STILL could not understand that. It looks like a bit of everything purposely damaged until it is possible to put that into a ready to sell box and further damaged so that it is hard to escape that box.

    MS message is pathetic. I DO NOT CARE what I can do with LightSwitch "quick and easy". I care what HAVE BEEN DONE for me to use.

    While enough developers are like me, LightSwitch will continue to be a nice niche application.
    gak@...
  • First thoughts on LightSwitch...

    I've worked with a number of proprietary IDEs, some good, some bad. LightSwitch has some promise, but it is hampered by the underlying technology stack. Reporting, in particular, is highly problematic. When I first looked at LightSwitch, there was no built in printing capabilities beyond writing directly to an output stream. Knowing that it uses SQL Server on the backend, SSRS integration would seem to be a given. But, alas, SSRS isn't a multi-tenant reporting engine so no software vendors would dream of hosting it in the cloud. There were some other quirks, but for the enterprise reporting capability can make or kill a platform. If Microsoft were serious about LightSwitch as a development environment, they'd take their Dynamics lineup and port it into the framework. If not Dymanics then something...anything...to acknowledge that as a company they are committed to the platform. Otherwise, it's no different than Microsoft Office Accounting Professional...another promise of a toolset with no skin in the game to ensure its longevity and success.
    jasonp@...
    • Reporting is Critical

      Its superlative reporting engine was a large reason Access gained so much traction as a general-purpose database app. LightSwitch will languish without a similar knockout-punch quality reporting tool.
      kismert
  • Compatibility and future stability

    I read about Lightswitch with interest a few months back and came away with the impression it was an n-tier Rapid App Development tool to replace Access (good so far) .. but that it requires Silverlight on the client (ah, the catch). That immediately killed my interest. The online world has steadily and surely moved AWAY from proprietary, mobile unfriendly client-side layers like Flash, so it's not surprising that Silverlight hasn't gained traction and IMO never will.

    Any other company would have targeted HTML5 (with cross browser JS+CSS widgets) - but this is MS in its classic proprietary thinking mode, so it served up something incompatible with mobile and most OOTB browsers. Resolving this issue would I imagine require fundamental rearchitecturing of Lightswitch - at which point you effectively have a new product.

    Therein lies my second concern. MS (though not alone) has something of a history of changing its mind and abandoning tech that has failed to gain sufficient traction. The writing appears to be on the wall for Silverlight after just 5 years, for example, with the (correct) choice of HTML5 for W8 Metro instead of SL. I fear Lightswitch is headed for the same fate, so do not wish to waste time on it.
    psdie8
  • Why No Standalone????

    We purchased Lightswitch this year because I am in a one man IT shop for a small company and it allows me to make simple apps on the fly. We have an on demand IT budget and we are very upset that the latest Lightswitch will only be available in Visual Studio and not a standalone product.
    wolters@...
  • WinRT is killing Lightswitch

    The big HTML5/WinRT fiasco is what confused and scared developers away from Silverlight and Lightswitch.
    kinect_dev
  • Open-source the ecosystem

    Microsoft should do more than release a variety of free LightSwitch extensions -- they should open-source the code for those extensions.
    One of my fears about LightSwitch is that I am not buying a complete tool. I get the feeling I will need to evaluate, budget for, and purchase 3rd party extensions to do anything more than make simplistic LightSwitch apps.
    And, of course, if I bet wrong, and my extension provider goes out of business, or discontinues the extension, I'm screwed.
    Having solid, open-source extension options will go a long way towards assuaging those fears, and grow the market.
    So, do I have it out for for-profit extension vendors? No -- far from it. A rapidly growing market, fueled partly by free extensions, benefits everyone. LightSwitch becomes established, and companies commit to it. Open-source extensions become the entry-level, and establish a baseline of quality for the commercial versions. Standards are more likely to become established to allow interoperability of extensions.
    I think this is an everyone-wins proposition.
    kismert
  • Deployment to HTML5/JS/CSS3

    Add deployment to a cross-platform presentation layer, and usage will skyrocket. Combine with downloadable monotouch/droid/etc wrappers for phonegap like benefits and MS will have cornered most business mobile software development in months. Promise!
    Zizzle2
  • Hosting

    There have been some significant issues with deployment to shared hosting. Some companies offer LightSwitch hosting as a 'feature' but clearly have no understanding of the technology. Support systems are weak and help is very poor.
    One of the UK companies that has more or less abandonded me was one recommended by Microsoft as a featured hosting company.
    LightSwitch is hugely powerful, quick and efficient in development but suffers from a 'last-mile' problem from my experience.
    pgmckillop
  • So far so good

    Testing it now, and so far, so good. I'm a dBase/Clipper/VB6/MS Access/PHP & MYSQL programmer and have gotten very tired of writing PHP /HTML screen & CRUD code. It does look like someone at MS remembered the idea of productivity. I have yet to forgive them for abandoning VB6 and screwing up the menus of Access in the '07 version - but this could help.
    arthurheyman@...
  • So far so good

    Testing it now, and so far, so good. I'm a dBase/Clipper/VB6/MS Access/PHP & MYSQL programmer and have gotten very tired of writing PHP /HTML screen & CRUD code. It does look like someone at MS remembered the idea of productivity. I have yet to forgive them for abandoning VB6 and screwing up the menus of Access in the '07 version - but this could help.
    arthurheyman@...
  • Utilities & statistics

    Two marketing opportunities:

    1. I'd like to second Patanjali's comment (above) about utilities. LightSwitch won't compete with the UIs of the better software products I've been working on. It is, however, quick and useful for data-centric utilities. It takes a fraction of the time to put together support utilities or utilities for debugging or researching data conditions. Developers understand the need for such tools. So, market LightSwitch to experienced developers as a RAD system for utilities. In times past, I'd hoped that Access could fill at least a little of that space. Unfortunately, Access is not up to the task and is actually dangerous.

    2. Warning: I'm dreaming my dream here. Use LightSwitch as an entree into the statistics segment of the market. Microsoft has, effectively, given up (or never even tried) in the statistics-analysis arena. (My fear is that they don't even realize they haven't tried.) Few researchers use Microsoft products for statistical analysis. They would like to use Excel more than they do, but only the most rudimentary statistical techniques are supported through Excel, and extensions to Excel in this space have limited credibility in the field. Again, I sometimes fear that folks within Microsoft don't grasp how far the field statistics has developed from traditional techniques like regression analysis. Of necessity, the "math and equations" part of statistics is now light years past what it was two decades ago.
    The potential synergy here with LightSwitch is that statistics is embarking on another revolution: effective visual analysis of complex and "big" data. By this, I don't mean just better charts or improved data mining. Increasingly, the user interacts with sophisticated visual tools to come to understand the statistical conclusions in a manner that is way past just drill down. In fact, I think increasingly, the statistical "conclusions" are the interactive visual tools. Different sets of people get involved in creating such tools. They have more visual/artistic talent -- not the math/stat savants who have traditionally inhabited the statistics realm. This is a area of immense creativity and will be for some time to come.
    The opportunity here for Microsoft comes from the fact that most statistics folks aren't experienced business programmers. In fact they often lack the inclination, skill set, and frankly the patience to make their statistical conclusions accessible to others. LightSwitch could be the framework in which this presentation happens. Ultimately it can show data quickly and quite well without requiring extensive business-programming experience. Let LightSwitch host this new generation of visual-analysis tools as plug-ins. The open source language R is doing this. Thousands of packages are been written for R. Harness the brainpower and the innovation of this new brand of statistics academics and other researchers by making it easy to publish research results in an interactive format that can take you to the actual data -- or closer to it.
    OK, so that's my dream. In the end, though, one might ask, "Why?" What's in it for Microsoft? What's in it for them is the hearts and minds of the myriad technical, non-computer science students who pass through college and grad school on their way -- eventually -- to IT jobs or to jobs in that sphere. This includes students from biology, bio-chemistry, chemistry, medicine, physics, engineering, economics, finance, and political science, psychology. Currently, so many of them live in -- or at least are exposed to -- Python, Java, C, C++ and a host of statistical packages that have evolved to include programming languages and/or tools: SAS, SPSS, Minitab, JMP, R, R-PLUS, S-PLUS, Revolution, Statistica, Systat, Mathematica, MathLab, Julia (and more). When they emerge from their academic training, these students have surprisingly little connection to the Microsoft developer stack. It's not just that they have been carefully trained to have a holier-than-thou dislike of Microsoft. It's that Microsoft hasn't been there for them for years because it's forfeited its role in this space. There's no need for that.
    Cfl Confluente