Microsoft once owned the novice developer space with its Visual Basic (VB) 6 product. VB6 was easy to learn and was an incredibly productive development environment. However, VB6 was no match for “real” languages like C++ and Java. Microsoft needed to move to the more enterprise-capable .NET platform to effectively compete against Java in the enterprise. When Microsoft took a turn down the .NET road, VB6 with its simplicity and productivity was lost for good. Microsoft’s newer languages like C# and the .NET-based VB (such as VB 2010) are definitely more capable and robust than VB6 ever was. However, they are also vastly more complex. That low initial learning hurdle that VB6 users enjoyed isn’t part of the .NET equation.

 Easy To Learn Development: Still MIA

Microsoft has been looking for a way to get back into the novice developer space for some time, but so far they haven’t gotten it quite right. First, they tried with the failed Web Matrix product, next with the capable, cost effective, but still complex Visual Studio Express line of products, and more recently with yet another Web Matrix tool designed to attract open source developers. Although all of these tools can be used for application development they still require someone with developer skills and mentality. Administrators and power users aren’t going to pick up these tools unless they’re under duress. That old backup plan where you can just pick up VB6 and program something in a couple of days is still MIA.

 LightSwitch: Powered by Wizards

This is where the new Visual Studio LightSwitch product comes in. LightSwitch (currently in beta) is a wizard-driven .NET application generator along the lines of Iron Speed Designer. LightSwitch can create Windows-, web-, and Azure-based cloud applications. LightSwitch can generate either VB or C# applications. It’s is very data centric and can attach to a number of data sources including SQL Server, SharePoint, Access, and SQL Azure.

Although LightSwitch is aimed at the same target audience of non-developer business people as VB6 was, the LightSwitch approach is entirely different. VB6’s drag-and-drop designer is gone. It’s replaced by LightSwitch’s wizards and templates. LightSwitch doesn’t have a visual design environment. In LightSwitch you don’t even see a screen until it’s rendered. You begin creating LightSwitch applications by connecting to a data source and then selecting an existing table or choosing to create a new table. Next you select the components you want to use. LightSwitch will generate the required application pages based on its built-in application templates. The pages or forms generated will be complete with all the appropriate basic data validations for the controls and data that you selected.

 Non-Devs Can Create Database Apps

The bottom line on LightSwitch is that it really does allow non-developers to create database applications. However, in this early beta the ability to customize those applications is limited, which means that the apps that you wind up with might not work and act the way you want. Microsoft’s early marketing touts LightSwitch as a tool for developing professional-quality applications, but that’s not really the case just now. The limitations in screen customization separate LightSwitch applications from professional applications. However, it’s still early in the development cycle, and it’s certain that LightSwitch will continue to improve before its final release.

It remains to be seen whether the new Visual Studio LightSwitch will be able to fill in the gap at the administrator, part-time developer, and beginning developer level, but at least it shows that Microsoft knows that business have a pain point here that needs to be addressed. At the time of this writing pricing isn’t available yet. I expect LightSwitch will be a relatively low cost tool, but I don’t expect it to be a free tool. You can download the beta version of Visual Studio LightSwitch from www.microsoft.com/visualstudio/en-us/lightswitch. Send me your thoughts at motey@sqlmag.com. Let’s start a conversation. Also, look for more coverage in my blog onsqlmag.com.