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As some target upstart Silverlight, WinForms and ASP.NET remain strong

The rush of interest in Microsoft's Silverlight rich interactive client should not obscure the fact that WinForms and ASP.NET are established and preferred by many developers. Several component makers discuss the many-headed means of Microsoft UI development.

User interface components and controls vendors in the Visual Studio/.NET Framework market are focusing their attention on new technologies like Silverlight and Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), but they're not turning their backs on their bread-and-butter offerings for the older WinForms and ASP.NET.

"WinForms and ASP.NET have a much stronger demand -- those are our core [Microsoft] products," said Rene Garcia, president of Software FX, a data visualization and component vendor in Boca Raton, Fla. But, he added, "we are fully vested in WPF."

"WinForms is a viable technology; it's mature and been around for long time, and there are a lot of applications already developed," said Andrew Flick, product manager of rich clients at Infragistics Inc., in Princeton, N.J. "WPF is one of the technologies emerging, but WinForms still has a large user base. There are still people using VB6 and COM. With WinForms, our strategy is to continue to develop for it."

In early June Infragistics released NetAdvantage for .NET 2008 Volume 2, a set of UI components for Windows Forms and ASP.NET.

Pittsburgh-based ComponentOne LLC, for its part, recently released ComponentOne Studio Enterprise v2, a suite of development components with five development platforms in one: Studio for WinForms, Studio for ASP.NET, Studio for WPF, Studio for Mobile, and Studio for ActiveX. Studio Enterprise v2, which is compatible with Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 and Visual Studio 2008, includes two new products: ComponentOne DynamicHelp and ComponentOne InputPanel, both Windows Forms applications.

"I think WinForms will be around for years; Microsoft is not going to drop it," said Mark Driver, research vice president for application development tools and methods at Gartne Inc. "But it is becoming legacy .NET UI technology. Look for a combination of WPF and Silverlight or Atlas/Ajax for projects for the Microsoft-centric developer."

The market for presentation-layer development tools, or UI components, has been proliferated by what Driver calls relatively small vendors "since the early days of VBX controls." Those that get a "toehold" in the enterprise, he said, tend to provide a large suite of controls that have a similar look and feel.

The vendors in this space aim to address application developer needs such as facilitating "shorter development cycles by leaping development increments using prebuilt components," according to Gustavo Eydelsteyn, managing director of ComponentOne. He said the prebuilt components can also help to reduce maintenance costs, speed time to market and "minimize application failure by reducing scope and complexity."

Essentially, the controls extend the functionality of Visual Studio, said Svetozar Georgiev, CEO of Bulgaria-based Telerik Inc., with U.S. offices in Newton, Mass. "The standard controls available in Visual Studio are very powerful, yet they are limited in features. For example, drag-and-drop functionality is not available in the standard ASP.NET controls out-of-the-box -- developers need to code it."

Georgiev continued, "Looking at Silverlight and WPF, the added value becomes even more pronounced. The first and biggest problem developers face with those technologies is the required learning. The new platforms are great and powerful, yet the development paradigm is quite different."

The adoption of Visual Studio 2008 is slower than the movement from VS2003 to VS2005, among Software FX's customer base, Garcia said. The company plans to release it's offering for WPF in the next month or so, he said. Garcia said Software FX already offers a free upgrade to its ASP.NET solution that allow the generation of Silverlight content.

"I don't think the mainstream of developers are ready to absorb and digest what WPF is right now," Garcia said. "It's not as simple as the COM to .NET migration -- it's a whole new way of developing applications, especially on the UI side of things. WPF can do any type of aesthetics, but developers aren't designers. There are many things involved in WPF development that will take time for people to catch up with."

For its part, Infragistics recently introduced Infragistics NetAdvantage for WPF 2008 Volume 1. Flick said the company has been committed to WPF for quite a while, developing a prototype four to five years ago, and last year shipping a data grid for WPF. "What does the WPF market look like? We made a bet that it's not media-rich applications but a lot of line-of-business applications. Businesses are starting to adopt WPF for line-of-business applications."

New to NetAdvantage for WPF 2008 Vol. 1 is the xamDockManager, which allows end users to reconfigure their user interface; and a new row aggregation feature in the xamDataGrid that allows end users to add summary fields to their data grid, including mathematical calculations.

According to Gartner's Driver, "We didn't see lot demand for WPF; Microsoft was caught offguard with the Ajax phenomenon. A lot of developers were finding they don't need that [WPF] technology. Silverlight will be the saving grace for WPF."

Driver said Silverlight is making more people aware of WPF, and he is seeing an increase in interest for WPF. "Silverlight is the killer app for WPF." Also, he added, "there really weren't good WPF development tools out there until VS2008 hit the street."

In terms of choosing between WPF vs. Silverlight "it's RIA vs. a rich client model," Driver said. "The big issue is Silverlight is cross-platform; WPF isn't. But the thing I like with the Microsoft approach is it's consistent, which you don't get in the Java world. You can go from WPF to Silverlight and it's like going from a superset to a subset of the same skills."

Telerik's Georgiev said his firm follows Microsoft's approach in this regard. The company recently announced RadControls for WPF Beta 2. Five controls -- RadTreeView, RadPanelBar, RadSlider, RadNumericUpDown, RadProgressBar -- have been migrated from the Silverlight suite and integrated into RadControls for WPF.

"The key advantage of the Telerik controls is that the versions for Silverlight and WPF are derived from the same code base and share the same API. Platform-specific differences are then implemented on top of the common API. This is completely in-line with Microsoft's approach and ensures code reusability and significantly decreased learning periods," Georgiev said.

Both Infragistics and ComponentOne in June announced the pre-release of products for Silverlight. "We see a lot of interest in both technologies [WPF and Silverlight]," said ComponentOne's Eydelsteyn. "WPF still needs some traction, but Silverlight is increasingly gaining the current attention."

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