An Interesting Development for Web Designers: Visual InterDev 6.0

Hands On: Microsoft's Visual InterDev 6.0

Not long ago Web developers could use Windows Notepad and a simple FTP utility to keep a Web site up-to-date. Today, it's common to talk about Web applications that involve HTML, scripts at the host and the client, Style Sheets, multiple authors, and embedded components. To build these complex applications Web developers need an industrial-strength Internet development environment.

Microsoft Corp.'s most recent entry into this space is Visual InterDev 6.0, a project-oriented, professional Web development environment. Visual InterDev is targeted at programmers, whereas tools like FrontPage 98 or Fusion from NetObjects Inc. (www.netobjects.com) are targeted at non-programmers and traditional Web authors. Developers familiar with Visual C++ and Visual Basic will feel at home using the product, but novice Web developers will find the project environment complex and intimidating.

We installed Visual InterDev on a Windows NT Server 4.0 SP3 machine to try out its server and workstation features. Without a doubt, Visual InterDev works best in a pure Microsoft environment. For example, the product requires the Active Server Pages scripting engine to be available on its Web server.

The installation wizard requires you to upgrade to Windows NT Service Pack 3 if you haven't already. The install process provides an abundant set of development tools, including Remote Machine Debugging for SQL debugging, InterDev server components, FrontPage server extensions and version 2.0 of Data Access Components for database integration. In our custom installation, ignoring the documentation and material from the included MSDN library disk we installed, Visual InterDev's footprint was less than 50 MB.

Once installed, Visual InterDev provides a near-WYSIWYG page editor, debugging tools for scripts at the host and the browser, database integration tools, site management and deployment facilities and a long overdue mechanism for sharing Web development efforts between multiple authors and designers. When a project has been opened, the page editor sports the traditional Visual Studio interface with properties and resource panels on the right, and a click-and-drag component toolbox on the left. The editor panel has three views: a WYSIWYG view, a source code view, and a "quick view" that allows authors to preview the functionality of client-side applications without forcing them to save their scripts to a server.

Visual InterDev also includes an integrated Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) editor. Styles connected with document objects are handled through the properties menu, but if you're trying to maintain a consistent look and feel over an entire site, the CSS editor is a welcome change from the near-Notepad functionality of most competitors. In the CSS view you can preview the effect of the stylesheet on a sample page or examine the CSS source file.

Visual InterDev's Scripting Object Model (SOM) provides a set of design-time controls -- similar to Visual Basic or Visual C++ -- that can be dragged and dropped into a WYSIWYG page design. Once on the page, the properties dialog allows customizations of the content, look and feel of each element. Visual InterDev takes advantage of features of the Internet Explorer (IE) object model, but we found that, with a little bit of extra care and effort, we were able to build a site that was reasonably browser neutral. We wish InterDev provided warnings when controls or components were specific to IE. The absence of those warnings, when combined with Visual InterDev's rich toolset, let us get far down the development path before we found that we were relying on features only available in the IE object model.

Too many Web development environments pretend that there is a single developer for the entire Web site. Even Microsoft's FrontPage 98 is built on the illusion that a single person, working at a single workstation, is analyst, developer and publisher of Web applications. In large organizations, however, one team typically works on content development, another works on database integration, and another on publishing. Visual InterDev is designed for supporting teams of Internet application developers working on common projects.

A huge advantage for Web-development teams is the ability to work on local copies of the Web application. You can develop and test against the local copy and, when testing is complete, deploy the application to the production Web server. Many application developers are used to this separation between testing and production environments, and it's a welcome addition in Visual InterDev. Content developers who are used to the simpler world of FrontPage 98 can use that tool to work simultaneously with Visual InterDev users on the same project. In addition, Visual InterDev users can create a standard source control system, such as Microsoft's Visual SourceSafe, to provide access control for the pages and scripts at the master Web site.

With it's scripting, debugging, database integration and group development support, Visual InterDev is the strongest enterprise-class Internet development environment we've seen yet. For organizations with strong investments in BackOffice infrastructure, the choice is easy. Those developing for non-Microsoft Web servers or multiple browsers, however, are at risk because of some of InterDev's underlying requirements. Even with that limitation, Visual InterDev -- when used with care -- is an excellent platform for Internet application development.

Visual InterDev 6.0
Microsoft Corp.
Redmond, Wash.
(425) 882-8080
www.microsoft.com
Price: $500. Competitive Upgrade $250. Also available with Visual Studio 6.0.

+ Substantial improvement in function over previous version
+ Excellent integrated page and stylesheet editors
+ Script editing, debugging and deployment tools are outstanding
+ Scripting Object Model brings "Visual-style" development to Web apps
+ Strong support for Web application development teams

- Inappropriate and overwhelming for novice users and simple Web sites
- Substantial Microsoft prerequisites to get full advantage of product
- Large installation footprint and memory requirements
- No warnings when using Internet Explorer specific components