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Interact Software

Avalon - It's About More Than Flashy Demos

Sunday 4 April, 2004, 06:27 PM

One of the problems with trying to present technology in public for the first time is that it can be very hard to make it clear what the benefits are. With some of the best technologies, the benefits only become obvious once you've actually tried using it. The .NET Framework is a case in point - a lot of people are initially very sceptical about it, but once they try it, they're usually hooked.

On the face of it, graphics and presentation technologies have a distinct advantage. They're all about making information visible, so you can go wild with spectacular demos which will wow the crowd. However, while it's very easy to do this, the flashy visuals can easily detract from the more subtle benefits.

For example, if you went to the PDC, you could be forgiven for thinking that Avalon is mainly about building partially-transparent user interfaces with rotating video clips in them.

Now I happen to love computer graphics, so I am wildly enthusiastic about all the new visual technology that Avalon will bring to Windows. And I think it is important to up the ante on standards of visual presentation - today, very few computer applications get anywhere close to the quality of information presentation which is routinely provided on any reasonably good television channel. But I think Avalon's real value goes very much deeper than this. As with today's .NET Framework, I suspect that an awful lot of the value will be in the productivity benefits.

Of course, if the theme for your talk is that Avalon makes it really easy to build mundane but functional user interfaces, that makes for less impressive demos. But for a lot of companies, that is likely to have a lot more value than a text box at a 10 degree incline with an animated zoom, or a wibbly gel effect button.

So I think that Joe Marini's RSS reader program is one of the most interesting Avalon demos yet. It doesn't do anything particularly striking as far as visual effects do. But what blows me away completely is that it was written using precisely no lines of code. That's right - zero lines of code! It's all markup and XML data binding.

This is a great illustration of how much you can get done declaratively. Of course we shouldn't be surprised. This is an incremental improvement - each new generation of UI building technology from Microsoft tends to make things easier. It was an order of magnitude easier to write an RSS reader using Windows Forms than it was using MFC. (And considerably easier than even VB6.) Even so, data binding in the context of a declarative UI feels like a significant leap forward. And I'm a big fan of XPath, so I'm also delighted to see integrated binding support for this.

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