In my career, I’ve worked with several Microsoft products which failed. Sometimes you have a sense early on that a product will be a Fail. Other times the product’s future initially looks promising but due to development delays and changing market conditions the product becomes a Fail.
I’ve been checking out Visual Studio LightSwitch the past couple months and believe it has a bright future.
This article discusses an earlier Microsoft product which LightSwitch takes a lot of ideas from and why I think Microsoft is getting it right this time.
When I first read about LightSwitch, it caught my attention because of my experience in developing business applications and working with business application frameworks. Its goal of giving the user rapid application development, the ability to connect to multiple data sources and its support to multiple deployment environments differentiate it from other tools I’ve worked with in the past.
What really piqued my interest is seeing familiar faces and names on the Channel 9 videos and in the LightSwitch Developer’s forum. Some of these folks have been in the business application development ecosystem for a couple decades. They bring a wide and deep experience of knowing what works, and more importantly, knowing what fails.
I downloaded and explored the example applications.
I read some great blog postings by Michael Washington showing the ease of developing a Student Information System application using LightSwitch.
Forming an Opinion
I haven’t seen a development tool quite like LightSwitch.
Developers often speak of code smells in discussing code that doesn’t look right, which hint at deeper problems in the design of the code.
Well, I also think there are product smells. Product smells are what your intuition tells you about new product development and the sense of whether the product will become a Win or Fail.
Microsoft has had its share of developments and early release products with a ‘product smell’.
Let me give you some examples from my personal experience with Microsoft projects which were Fails. With the context established of products which failed, I’ll discuss why I think LightSwitch will be a Win.
Fifteen years ago I worked in a development group responsible for creating server management software. The company sent me to attend a vendor only conference in Redmond where Microsoft showed early bits of “OLE Management Framework”. (Hey, this was a before Microsoft decided to rename Object Linking and Embedding to COM.) That framework never saw the light of day. Parts of it may have morphed to become part of WMI, but it I saw no more of the OLE Management Framework. In my opinion, the market was not ready for that framework. The developer community had not embraced ‘OLE interfaces’ and Windows servers were not widely deployed in the enterprise. Companies had little incentive to develop management applications on top of such of a framework.
I’m sure we can all name some Microsoft projects which “had the smell”: Bob, Clippy, and most recently Microsoft Kin.
Microsoft has had a number of product and framework developments which died a slow death. There are a number of examples of projects which initially appeared to have a bright future, but after months of development, the company stopped work on the project and the bits and IP morphed into other products and product teams.
Some examples which come to mind are WinFS, Oslo and Project Quadrant, and one, which for me, hit close to home– MBF (Microsoft Business Frameworks)
LightSwitch appears different than these Failed projects. I believe it has the potential to be a wildly successful product. Let me explain more why I believe this.
I use to work on the Microsoft Business Framework team.
In 2001, due to the investments which Microsoft was making at the time in the Business division and the MBF project, MBF appeared to have a great future. Microsoft spent millions of dollars to acquire several companies, Great Plains, Navision, and Solomon, with the intention of consolidating their business applications into one framework and one application.
Let me state my case using some clips from a news article made in 2002:
“Microsoft is in for the long haul as far as its business applications are concerned with a 10-year development plan and a new Microsoft Business Framework to support the basket of disparate applications offered under the Microsoft Business Solutions banner. ….
The expanding technology stack is part of Microsoft Business Solutions’ goal to provide end-to-end software support for the SME business sector via an integrated application platform, and attempts to address the issue of how the division will manage and integrate its disparate mix of applications which include those from Great Plains and Navision plus its own home-grown offerings. With this proto-framework Microsoft is aiming to change the perception of what constitutes the base for an application platform, said Edwards.
If there were any doubts over how big an effort Microsoft planned to make in the applications mid-market they are rapidly being dispelled. The division has been identified as one of the seven pillars of the wider Microsoft business and while it only produces revenue of $0.5bn at the moment, a paltry sum compared to that of some of Microsoft’s other divisions, the goal is to be generating revenue of $10bn in 10 years time. Edwards says the strategy is a 10-year gamble aimed at getting mid-market companies connected…..”
I remember the mantra $10 billion in 10 years very well. With so much investment made in creating the new division and creating product teams, who was I to argue otherwise in 2002?
A few years later it was a different environment:
From a news article in 2005:
“… Microsoft Business Framework (MBF) is no more.
The new strategy is to make the various technologies that were to comprise MBS available as part of a variety of other currently shipping and soon-to-be-delivered Microsoft products.
On Tuesday, Microsoft announced internally that it had reassigned the couple hundred MBF team members to other product teams, primarily the Visual Studio and Dynamics units, inside the company. Microsoft officials made the company’s decision public on Wednesday.
MBF was to be a set of developer tools and software classes designed to ride atop the Microsoft .Net framework. MBF was developed primarily by Great Plains Software team, which Microsoft acquired in 2001. Microsoft was working to build a number of its products — including the Microsoft Business Portal, the next version of its Visual Studio .Net tool suite and its “Project Green” wave of ERP/CRM products — all on top of the MBF layer.
When Microsoft decided in August, 2004 to remove the Windows File System (WinFS) functionality from Windows Longhorn/Vista and Longhorn Server, MBF was one of the casualties. At that point, Microsoft refused to pin a delivery-date target on either WinFS or MBF.
As of April this year, however, Microsoft officials revealed that their plan was still to deliver MBF as a standalone set of classes and libraries. Microsoft had delivered one MBF test build to about 40 customers and software developers who were experimenting with the bits. Microsoft’s goal was to deliver the final MBF framework toward the end of 2007, Darren Laybourn, general manager of MBF, told eWEEK.”
Why It’s Different This Time
I don’t think LightSwitch has a future of dimming out like MBF.
Firstly, there’s a market need for a tool like LightSwitch. This market need will drive adoption as more developers and business analysts become aware of how cost effectively they can create business applications.
The business application ecosystem needs a tool which removes the need for non-programmer Business Analysts to construct an application without requiring a deep knowledge about n-tier development, T-SQL commands, and application plumbing construction.
But, that tool needs to provide extensibility points to allow programmers to hook into the tool for custom models and to add out of box functionality. For example, a business application generator needs to allow a programmer hooks to use other .NET frameworks like Work Flow Foundation to add in functionality that’s not in the delivered product.
If Microsoft has learned anything since 2002 about the business application space, it’s that it continues to be a fragmented market and the needs of different businesses make a single solution hard to implement. After a decade, the company still has three business products—Dynamics SL, Dynamics GP, and Axapta. Ease of use coupled with extensibility points is key to the success of a product to build business applications.
Unlike MBF, LightSwitch has a growing and vibrant user community in its Beta 1 release. MBF bits were not released to the developer community, there were no online tutorials and public facing technical evangelists.
LightSwitch is providing many of the concepts which MBF evangelized back in 2002, which is why I think the LightSwitch team “gets it”.
Let me point out a few slides from a PDC 2003 presentation.
Developing Business Applications Using the Microsoft Business Framework Overview DAT340.ppt
Hmm… Data Entities, Entity Validation, Business Logic Abstraction, Persistent Object Data Abstraction (as in data source connections of external databases, Sharepoint, or WCF RIA Services?)
With little editing, these eight year old slides could be used today in a LightSwitch presentation.
The legacy MBF experience sure appears to be reemerging into LightSwitch.
This may well be in part because some prominent members of the LightSwitch team worked on MBF and Dynamics GP.
I mentioned earlier in this posting about the experience of the people behind LightSwitch and why it piqued my interest when I first learned about it.
Steve Anonsen and Dan Seefelt are members of the LightSwitch team. Both were key members of the Dynamics Great Plains product development and later, MBF. It certainly appears they are bringing their decades of experience of what works and what doesn’t work in business application development to LightSwitch.
Steve and Dan are very activity in the LightSwitch forum, quickly answering early adopter’s questions.
In the video Inside LightSwitch, you can watch Steve give an overview of LightSwitch architecture.
So those are a few of my opinions, with a basis of forming those opinions, of why I believe LightSwitch has the potential to ‘knock it out of the ball park’ for business application product development. This is why I’m investing some of my free time to kick the tires on the early bits and become an early adopter.
I’m curious to hear your comments.
Do you think LightSwitch has the potential to be successful like Visual FoxPro or will early adopters be the last ones out to turn off the lights?