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-- by James E. Powell
Microsoft's long-awaited entry into the Web application-development category is Visual InterDev 1.0. While it's loaded with features, this product is not as "visual" as we expected. It also works only with Microsoft Web servers, which limits its application.
Visual InterDev's default dual-pane window interface includes project resources in hierarchical style in the left panel and a preview or editing window in the right panel. It allows you to build Web sites that include database records in a table or create a Web site that looks like an Access application, letting you find, edit and delete records. Best of all, you can construct such sites using a variety of techniques, ranging from simple wizards to a color-coded syntax editor and SQL tools. But this is no beginner's tool-it lets you incorporate ActiveX controls, JScript or VBScript, and Java applets. And it has much more of a learning curve than that of its static page-building sibling, FrontPage.
If you want to forgo wizards and form your own site, Visual InterDev includes a WYSIWYG layout editor based on FrontPage for building the basic page layout (you can also link in your favorite editor). But for quick-and-dirty site development, the Database Wizard gets you going instantly. Simply choose tables or views and the desired fields, select a stylesheet and let Visual InterDev generate an add/change/delete site in seconds.
Our simple task took less than two minutes, from starting the wizard to previewing the site. Unfortunately, the HTML editor is most useful for getting started, not as a powerful editing tool for ongoing modifications. When you use it to edit existing pages, there's very little to manipulate visually-virtually everything is in code.
If you're comfortable repositioning code or using code to change which field appears in a table, Visual InterDev should be no challenge. However, if you're expecting a WYSIWYG environment for this purpose, this is not the tool you want. The SQL and database query tools are visually oriented, but page manipulation will appeal only to programmers who'd rather change function parameters than drag and drop a field into a new position.
The rather ordinary editor uses a brand new type of ActiveX control, called a Design-time ActiveX Control. We created a simple page that displayed master data from a one-to-many relationship in Microsoft Access. We added a header control (to select the database fields) and a footer control (which loops through the logic) to our page. To set properties (such as the data source), we clicked on the header control. When we were done, the Design-time ActiveX Control generated the server-side code, which includes <&PERCENT; &PERCENT;>tags. The editor highlights the code in yellow. You can edit the code or double-click anywhere within it to change properties, then regenerate the code.
We previewed the results in both Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.01 (Visual InterDev uses the IE ActiveX control) and Netscape Navigator 3.0. Design-time ActiveX Controls can be written in any language that creates ActiveX controls, such as Microsoft Visual Basic 5 or Microsoft Visual C++
Visual InterDev provides database access to Visual FoxPro, Microsoft Access and Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) data sources, as well as SQL Server, Oracle, Sybase, Informix and IBM DB/2. It can preview live data and help you build editable SQL statements and queries visually, much like Access' query feature. You can even turn the statements into a stored procedure. If you're a database administrator, you'll love the way Visual InterDev lets you manage tables (including writing the SQL needed to change a field type or size), provided you have the proper security.
Even though it's an incredibly feature-rich product, Visual InterDev won't unseat HAHTsite 2.0, our WinList favorite. HAHTsite also includes a development environment, but it has better visual tools, and its final results are compiled, not interpreted. HAHTsite includes a VB-compatible language, not just compatibility with VBScript. Perhaps the biggest difference lies in how they let you deploy your Web site. Visual InterDev is limited to NT and Internet Information Server-both Microsoft environments. HAHTsite works with far more servers, on both NT and UNIX, allowing you to create your applications for a variety of Web sites.