.NET Developments

Mar 23 2009   5:19PM GMT

MIX09 recap: plenty for developers, designers

Yuval Shavit Profile: YuvalShavit

It’s sometimes hard at a conference to see the forest for the trees. With two-hour keynotes and session after session, it’s not easy to keep perspective on what’s big and what’s ancillary. And so, now that I’m back in Boston and recovered from the redeye, here’s my take on last week.

Most of the action was concentrated on the first day of MIX09: the biggest highlights were two new features in Blend Expression 3, SuperPreview and SketchFlow — but Silverlight 3 and Web App Installer also raised some eyebrows. On the other hand, the official launch of Internet Explorer 8 on Thursday was a bit anticlimactic.

SuperPreview is Microsoft’s answer to a problem that has dogged Web developers for about as long as they’ve been around: browser incompatibilities. SuperPreview lets designers see how two browsers render a given page by viewing the comparisons side by side or overlaid. The tool can also send HTML to a server and get the rendered image back, letting designers compare browsers that aren’t installed on their computers. That’s useful for comparing different versions of Internet Explorer, for instance, or even seeing how IE on Windows compares to Safari on a Mac.

Selecting a component in one browser preview highlights that component in the other browser’s rendering, letting developers quickly hone in one problem areas. But for now, SuperPreview only shows developers where the inconsistencies are; it doesn’t tell them how to fix the problems.

You can download SuperPreview as a standalone from Microsoft.

SketchFlow, the other new feature in Expression Blend 3, lets designers quickly prototype UIs by defining a flowchart that describes an application’s screens. You can also assign behaviors to buttons that can change a screen’s state or transition to another screen, giving clients a good sense of an application’s flow without you having to write any code.

One nice touch in SketchFlow is that Microsoft has included a new “wiggly” theme for controls that makes them look hand-drawn. That should help cut down on clients that don’t understand the difference between a prototype and a finished product: SketchFlow prototypes look more like drawings on digital napkins than software applications. On the other hand, SketchFlow projects are full-fledged Expression Blend applications, so you can use them as a starting point when you’re ready to write the real program.

So far, SketchFlow is see-don’t-touch: Microsoft had plenty of demonstrations throughout the week, but the bits aren’t shipping yet.

I’ve already talked about Silverlight 3 and the Web App Installer in my coverage of the MIX09 keynote, but they’re worth a quick mention here. Silverlight 3 includes lots of eye candy as well some important tools for developers. For instance, you’ll be able to write one data validation method that will run on both the client and the server. Microsoft also complemented the new Silverlight preview with improvements to the IIS Media Pack, including DVR-type pausing and playback of live streams.

The Web App Installer is a quick and easy way to deploy Web applications to your server, including applications not built on ASP.NET. The installer takes care of dependencies, so installing WordPress will automatically download and install PHP on your Windows server, too.

If there was one disappointment last week, it was the unveiling of Internet Explorer 8 on Thursday. It’s not so much that IE 8 is a bad browser — although it still lacks the extensibility that FireFox’s extensions provide — but the browser has already been in beta for months. The most exciting feature for designers is IE 8′s Developer Tools, which we’ve already seen. The buzz seems to be giving IE 8 the Vista treatment: blogs are calling its launch a failure and arguing that it hasn’t brought enough to the table to quell Firefox’s steady gain on the market.

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