Questions about Longhorn, part 3: Avalon's enterprise mission

The slide shown at the right comes from a presentation entitled Windows client roadmap, given last month to the International .NET Association (INETA). When I see slides like this, I always want to change the word "How" to "Why" -- so, in this case, the question would become "Why do I have to pick between Windows Forms and Avalon?" Similarly, MSDN's Channel 9 ran a video clip of Joe Beda, from the Avalon team, entitled How should developers prepare for Longhorn/Avalon? that, at least for me, begs the question "Why should developers prepare for Longhorn/Avalon?"

I've been looking at decision trees like the one shown in this slide for more than a decade. It's always the same yellow-on-blue PowerPoint template, and always the same message: here's how to manage your investment in current Windows technologies while preparing to assimilate the new stuff. For platform junkies, the internal logic can be compelling. The INETA presentation shows, for example, how it'll be possible to use XAML to write WinForms apps that host combinations of WinForms and Avalon components, or to write Avalon apps that host either or both style of component. Cool! But...huh? Listen to how Joe Beda frames the "rich vs. reach" debate:

Avalon will be supplanting WinForms, but WinForms is more reach than it is rich. It's the reach versus rich thing, and in some ways there's a spectrum. If you write an ASP.NET thing and deploy via the browser, that's really reach. If you write a WinForms app, you can go down to Win98, I believe. Avalon's going to be Longhorn only.

So developers are invited to classify degrees of reach -- not only with respect to the Web, but even within Windows -- and to code accordingly. What's more, they're invited to consider WinForms, the post-MFC (Microsoft Foundation Classes) GUI framework in the .NET Framework, as "reachier" than Avalon. That's true by definition since Avalon's not here yet, but bizarre given that mainstream Windows developers can't yet regard .NET as a ubiquitous foundation, even though many would like to.

Beda recommends that developers isolate business logic and data-intensive stuff from the visual stuff -- which is always smart, of course -- and goes on to sketch an incremental plan for retrofitting Avalon goodness into existing apps. He concludes:

Avalon, and Longhorn in general, is Microsoft's stake in the ground, saying that we believe power on your desktop, locally sitting there doing cool stuff, is here to stay. We're investing on the desktop, we think it's a good place to be, and we hope we're going to start a wave of excitement leveraging all these new technologies that we're building.

It's not every decade that the Windows presentation subsystem gets a complete overhaul. As a matter of fact, it's never happened before. Avalon will retire the hodge-podge of DLLs that began with 16-bit Windows, and were carried forward (with accretion) to XP and Server 2003. It will replace this whole edifice with a new one that aims to unify three formerly distinct modes: the document, the user interface, and audio-visual media. This is a great idea, and it's a big deal. If you're a developer writing a Windows application that needs to deliver maximum consumer appeal three or four years from now, this is a wave you won't want to miss. But if you're an enterprise that will have to buy or build such applications, deploy them, and manage them, you'll want to know things like:

Then again, why even bother to ask these questions? It's not enough to believe that the return of rich-client technology will deliver compelling business benefits. (Which, by the way, I think it will.) You'd also have to be shown that Microsoft's brand of rich-client technology will trump all the platform-neutral variations. Perhaps such a case can be made, but the concept demos shown so far don't do so convincingly. The Amazon demo at the Longhorn PDC (Professional Developers Conference) was indeed cool, but you can see similar stuff happening in Laszlo, Flex, and other RIA (rich Internet application) environments today. Not, admittedly, with the same 3D effects. But if enterprises are going to head down a path that entails more Windows lock-in, Microsoft will have to combat the perception that the 3D stuff is gratuitous eye candy, and show order-of-magnitude improvements in users' ability to absorb and interact with information-rich services.

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