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What is it?
Visual Studio .net is Microsoft's integrated development environment for the Visual Basic, Visual C++, Visual C# and Visual J# programming languages. Before the .net tag was added, Visual Studio was actually a number of different development environments, one for each of the supported languages. Now developers have a consistent interface and toolset.
This rationalisation meant a loss of some functionality, especially for Visual Basic developers, but with Visual Studio 2005 Microsoft is putting some of it back.
The plethora of versions of Visual Studio also cries out for rationalisation and consolidation, forcing would-be purchasers to decide whether they are professionals, enterprise developers, architects or team members.
Following a delay last spring, there is some confusion about delivery dates, not helped by the appearance of Visual Studio 2003 Special Edition in the midst of the 2005 releases.
What is it for?
Visual Studio provides a set of visual designers and other tools for building Windows, XML and HTML web applications using the language best suited to the job or to the developer's skills.
It includes Visual XML designers, HTML editing and an enhanced version of the Windows Forms designer, which is compatible with any .net development language. A lot more can be done by dragging and dropping.
The Microsoft Office Information Bridge Framework is a set of Visual Studio tools for "smart" productivity application development. A toolset for secure web services is promised.
What makes it special?
Productivity features in Visual Studio .net include automatic syntax error detection and a cross-language remote debugger.
Intellisense, which helps the user by making decisions automatically, is available for XML and HTML, offering suggestions for completion of code which developers may or may not find helpful. Features that went missing after Visual Basic 6, such as edit and continue, are back in the 2005 edition.
Until now, Microsoft has concentrated on increasing the productivity of individual developers. The forthcoming Visual Studio Team System is Microsoft's belated entry into full software lifecycle management. It will support integrated and collaborative design, development and testing, deployment and management.
How difficult is it to master?
A lot of simplifying and standardising has been going on, so that developers familiar with one language should be able to get to grips with another. Use of wizards and drag-and-drop reduce the skills threshold for developers and administrators.
What are the alternatives?
Visual Studio is not the only option for .net development. There are third-party alternatives from Borland, among others, and Mono and dotgnu from the open source community. There is also the open source Eclipse IDE, a Java-based environment backed by IBM, SAP and Microsoft's partners in getting C# standardised, Hewlett-Packard and Intel.
What is coming up?
Microsoft is recreating Visual Studio .net as an open structure into which third-party tools can be plugged. Microsoft called this a "partnership ecosystem" - as the emphasis on Team System's extensibility shows.
Rates of pay
Salaries vary hugely depending on which languages are used. Visual C++ is hotter than Visual Basic, and Visual C# is hottest of all. Training
See Microsoft's UK training schedule for Visual Studio courses. There are free downloads of beta versions on the Visual Studio developer home page.