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A look at Visual Studio Shell

The new isolated mode of Visual Studio, and its free distribution, is designed to widen the ecosystem by appealing to specialized tooling providers.

With the upcoming Visual Studio Shell, Microsoft is looking to open its base IDE to a wider ecosystem. There are new cost enticements -- it's free -- as well as the option to custom brand applications. Visual Studio Shell, which will be available with the release of Visual Studio 2008, is the evolution of Visual Studio 2005 Premier Partner Edition (PPE).

"With Visual Studio 2008, [PPE] changed names; it also becomes a free offering. It was time to open up the base IDE for more people to innovate on and reduce the barriers," said Catherine Crim, a product manager in Microsoft's developer division. "Visual Studio extensibility is still a very advanced endeavor -- there are a lot of hardcore programmers working on Visual Studio extensibility, especially for the partner ecosystem." Also new in the Visual Studio 2008 SDK is the ability to create a custom IDE based on Visual Studio Shell, Crim said.

Visual Studio Shell provides a core IDE for users to develop their own custom programming language or development tools, so "it doesn't provide languages or compilers, or a lot of the content of Visual Studio," Crim said. It will be available in two modes, integrated and isolated.

The integrated mode maps to the 2003 and 2005 versions of PPE, Crim said, and is optimized for programming languages. Applications built on the integrated Shell will automatically merge with other editions of Visual Studio installed on the same machine, according to Microsoft.

More on Visual Studio Shell
MS announces Visual Studio 2008 Shell at Tech Ed 2007

The isolated mode, which is new, is optimized for specialized tools. Applications built with the isolated Shell will run alongside other editions of Visual Studio installed on the same machine, and developers can custom brand their applications.

The isolated mode is where Microsoft sees opportunity for expanding the ecosystem, Crim said. "We don't have a lot of users on the Premier Partner Edition, probably in the under 20 range," she said. "It's an interesting toolset, but it's limited to [a small market] and there was a fee associated with it. With specialized tools it gets more interesting. We want to enable more people to do more with the tools."

Crim said the isolated ideal is ideal for people building development tools for vertical and niche markets, as well as for horizontal markets. For instance, she said, an auto parts producer may use a certain toolset in the factory, but doesn't want to create an IDE from scratch. "Their value add is not the IDE, but the tooling," she said. That same producer may also want to brand the toolset with its own look and feel, Crim said.

Brian Feldman, the CTO at GrafX Software Inc., a language provider in West Palm Beach, Fla., agrees that not having to create an IDE is an advantage. GrafX, provider of Vulcan.NET, the xBase language for Microsoft .NET, maintained its own IDE until it started using Microsoft PPE 2005. "It allowed us to drop a good deal of our development efforts, to only concentrate on our compiler and integration to Visual Studio," Feldman said.

GrafX has a user base of about 7,000, he said, and sells directly to distributors as well as to end users and developers. The Vulcan.NET language is syntactically compatible with Visual Objects, Clipper and FoxPro, Feldman said.

The company joined Microsoft's Visual Studio Industry Partners (VSIP) program in 2004. Visual Studio Shell became available to VSIP partners with Visual Studio 2008 beta 2. It will be available to the broader development community with the release of Visual Studio 2008.

Feldman said GafX is using the integrated mode of the Shell. "All the integration work we did with [PPE] 2005 was a fairly painless move to the 2008 Shell," he said. And he added that Microsoft engineers have been very helpful. "With their guidance, we've produced a fairly full-featured version of Visual Studio. The difference is these Shell versions of Visual Studio do not come with any specific language. When we provide a copy of Vulcan.NET, the only language in the box will be the Vulcan.NET version. If a customer has Visual Studio installed, it integrates with it."

Also, Feldman is admittedly thrilled with Microsoft's decision to provide Shell free with Visual Studio 2008. "It went from a paid royalty to a completely free product -- that's a huge boon to us," he said.

While Feldman said his company is not using the isolated mode, he acknowledges it opens opportunities for other types of providers. "Microsoft wanted to open up to people beyond our scope. As language providers, we're a small group throughout world. With Visual Studio Shell, what Microsoft has done is opened up to a new range of possibilities, to anyone who wants to use Shell as a tremendous steppingstone, as we have."

Visual Studio Shell does not have a Go Live license; users will have to wait for the RTM version of Visual Studio 2008, Crim said. "They can build everything they need now except for the redistributable," she said. "There will be some work to integrate the package. but it's the minority of the work."

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