Visual Studio LightSwitch: Will it emerge from sleeper status?

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.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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