Once upon a time, Microsoft attempted to control Web development software in the hope that it could dominate the area in the same way its Office suite dominates productivity products. To begin with, this consisted almost entirely of FrontPage, which won respectable plaudits but soon fell behind much more advanced packages such as Dreamweaver, GoLive and NetObjects Fusion.
More recently, Microsoft has pushed a very successful line by concentrating on Web applications rather than sites and pages. Visual Studio 5.0 offers a development environment for desktop and Web programs, and the good news is that there are free versions of the various components available, known as Express Editions.
Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition (see Figure 1) is intended specifically for use with ASP.NET 2.0. At this stage, this reduces the usefulness of the application, because this specific server is still fairly limited - or, more to the point, is more expensive than the alternatives. And yet, by releasing such an impressive development tool for free, it is quite clear that Microsoft hopes to increase the take up of such ASP Web sites.
To get hold of Visual Web Developer (VWD), go to http://msdn.microsoft.com/vstudio/express/vwd. Here you will find the 3MB installer itself, but once this is downloaded you must remain connected to the Internet to complete installation. Once you double-click vwdsetup.exe, you will be offered the chance to also download the MSDN Express Library. This includes a huge amount of additional information, but at 248MB in size is probably best left until later. There's Microsoft SQL Server Express Edition, too, which is a more modest 55MB in size.
Once installation begins, you will almost certainly need to download .NET Framework 2.0. This includes the ASP.NET Development Server that you will need to test your pages. Once installation is completed, you must register the program. As with other elements of the Express Suite other than Microsoft SQL, this application is free to use for one year, although it is likely that downloads will remain so for the foreseeable future.
ASP.NET pages are dynamically run from the server, reading files saved with the .aspx extension. Fortunately, it is easy enough to create an .aspx file - simply change the .htm extension of the file you wish to use and load it onto an appropriate server. What is more significant, however, is that the server will read any dynamic code contained in that file and compile it into what Microsoft calls a .NET Framework class.
The difference between a class and a standard HTML file is that the former creates objects that can interact dynamically with the server.
For example, creating a form in HTML will insert buttons and fields to collect information from a user, but it also requires a script or some form of dynamic application to parse any data that is collected in this way.
A class incorporates the code (written in Visual Basic or C#) required to process such information usefully, sending it onto another page or stripping out important details, for example.
Where VWD simplified the production of such code is by providing server controls, programmable elements such as buttons, calendars, tree views and dynamic menus. While the interface may come across as somewhat intimidating to the casual Web designer, this is something that does simplify building complex ASP.NET Web sites.
For a free application, Visual Web Developer might look a little difficult at first glance, but this is a remarkably sophisticated tool that really is worth looking at. Its main limitation is current lack of widespread support for ASP.NET 2.0 (in contrast with PHP and MYSQL combinations) - but Microsoft's release of this excellent toolset could change that.