Microsoft Gives Semi-Pros a Free Web Dev Toolbox

Microsoft on Thursday released WebMatrix, a free Web development tool that it claims lets website developers of all skill levels create, customize and publish websites to the Internet easily.

It also announced an ecosystem of 40 open source application partners around WebMatrix.

This is a revival of a previous project, also called “WebMatrix,” that offered a free tool in 2002 to help Web developers get started with ASP.Net, Microsoft representative Jackie Lawrence told TechNewsWorld.

Microsoft has long been at war with the open source movement — could this be an attempt to re-establish its credibility with OSS adherents?

The Threads Making Up WebMatrix

WebMatrix includes IIS Express, a development Web server; ASP.net, which is a Web framework; and SQL Server Compact, an embedded database, Microsoft representative Lawrence said.

It also includes Razor, a new inline syntax for coding pages that adds dynamic functionality to HTML. This syntax minimizes the number of keystrokes required, Lawrence said. It doesn’t require users to learn a new language.

Microsoft plans to use Razor with standard inline pages as well as with future ASP.Net MVC releases as an optional view engine, Lawrence stated. MVC stands for Model View Controller.

Microsoft’s shipping a beta release of ASP.Net MVC 3 with WebMatrix and NuPack. ASP.Net MVC 3 enables clean separation between models and views, reducing complexity in architectural design and increasing the flexibility and manageability of the code, Lawrence remarked.

WebMatrix lets developers write code in HTML, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) or JavaScript. Developers can use it to write HTML5 code, Lawrence said.

WebMatrix is integrated with the NuGet open source package management system. Formerly called “NuPack,” NuGet lets developers who maintain open source projects package up their libraries and register them with an online gallery or catalog that’s searchable. Client-side NuGet tools include full Microsoft Visual Studio integration.

WebMatrix supports multiple programming syntaxes, including ASP.Net, Razor and PHP, as well as Web helpers. Web helpers give a single line-of-code solution for complex coding tasks such as inserting Twitter feeds of video, Lawrence said.

Further, WebMatrix includes a search engine optimization reporting tool so users can build search-friendly websites.

Comments on WebMatrix

“This looks like a pretty strong offering from Microsoft,” Web developer Aaron Hee-Stacpoole told TechNewsWorld. “It looks like they’ve positioned themselves pretty well with content management services like Drupal. I don’t think it’ll dominate the industry but people will definitely use it.”

However, newbies may not find WebMatrix quite so easy to use as Microsoft contends.

“It’s a programming environment, and it’s quite complicated,” Hee-Stacpoole commented. “I’d say that stating beginners can use it is not quite accurate. You can’t have something that’s really powerful and also easy to use — it’s somewhat of a paradox. I think semi-pros will use it.”

Thursday’s release follows three betas of WebMatrix, first in July 2010 and then in October and subsequently November.

Open Is as Open Does

In addition to using the open source NuGet, Microsoft has rounded up 40 open source application providers in its WebMatrix system. They include Joomla and Umbraco, both open source content management systems.

These tie-ins could give rise to speculation that Microsoft’s trying to mend its rocky relationship with the open source movement.

“Microsoft’s a founding sponsor of the OuterCurve Foundation, and we have a collection of projects under the ASP.Net open source gallery,” Paula Hunter, executive director of the OuterCurve Foundation, told TechNewsWorld. “All those projects either came to us from Microsoft or from people that are deploying .Net and who feel those projects are useful to the community.”

OuterCurve was set up by Microsoft in September of 2009 as the CodePlex Foundation. It was renamed in September “because there was a lot of confusion between the Foundation and CodePlex.com forge, which is a Microsoft property and has no relationship with us,” OuterCurve’s Hunter stated.

The establishment of the CodePlex Foundation immediately drew fire from the Open Invention Network, an intellectual property company promoting Linux and open source. The Network had purchased 22 Linux-related patents Microsoft had previously sold to the Allied Security Trust. It accused Microsoft of engaging in a covert war against Linux.

Skepticism about Microsoft’s intentions toward open source runs deep in the community.

However, this fact doesn’t preclude peaceful coexistence between open source and Microsoft.

“I don’t think WebMatrix will supplant any of the open source technologies,” Hee-Stacpoole opined. “It will probably coexist with them as Microsoft as done in the past.”

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