On Any Device: .NET Goes Mobile With the .NET Compact Framework

REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 23, 2001 — When aircraft carriers pull into port for maintenance and repair in the near future, Newport News Shipbuilding, the United States Navy and a host of partners and subcontractors will be ready to go to work. Projects of this scale and complexity are familiar to Newport News Shipbuilding, which designs, builds and maintains some of the most sophisticated ships in the world. But now the company is adding something new to its tool kit: a mobile application for project managers developed by its information systems subsidiary, Naptheon Inc. It is based on the latest extension of Microsoft’s .NET initiative and loaded onto Pocket PCs.

The solution — among the first end-to-end .NET applications to integrate server, desktop and mobile device components — is being demonstrated in prototype form this week at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in support of Microsoft’s technology preview of the .NET Compact Framework and Smart Device Extensions for Visual Studio .NET. The combination will enable a new class of enterprise applications to smart devices such as PDAs, and redefine the standard by which mobile development platforms are judged.

“This is an important milestone for the .NET promise of delivering great experiences any time, any place and on any device,” says Steven Lees, product manager for the .NET Compact Framework at Microsoft. “Now we’re bringing .NET to smart devices — in particular, devices based on Windows CE, such as the Pocket PC and Pocket PC 2002 — and extending the .NET programming model and the Visual Studio .NET tool set for device development. We’re making it easy for these devices to access the same XML Web services that are already in place on desktops and servers.”

Bringing .NET to Smart Devices

A subset of the desktop .NET Framework, the .NET Compact Framework is an application execution environment for smart devices that eases application deployment, handles essential plumbing chores such as memory management and security, and improves the reliability of device applications. The Smart Device Extensions for Visual Studio .NET will plug seamlessly into Visual Studio, enabling development, deployment and debugging for devices. This means that the more than 4 million Visual Studio developers will be able to develop applications for smart devices running the .NET Compact Framework without having to learn a different set of tools.

“Today we have two tools that target the Pocket PC and Windows CE — Embedded Visual Basic and Embedded Visual C++,” says Christopher Flores, product manager for Visual Studio Device Development at Microsoft. “These are similar to their desktop counterparts, but not identical. With the .NET Compact Framework and Smart Device Extensions for Visual Studio .NET, we’ll just have one single set of tools — Visual Studio .NET — whether it’s for the server or the device or the desktop.”

Because the .NET Compact Framework was designed for mobile devices, it performs particularly well on powerful compact devices, such as Pocket PCs. The integrated compilation technology, for example, is a unique feature that enables high-performance mobile applications. The evidence-based security model ensures that applications can run securely, limiting the threat posed by hostile code such as viruses. The performance and security — along with the processing power, memory and stability running applications with intermittent network connectivity — rounds out the Pocket PC as an unparalleled mobile application platform.

“This new .NET technology strengthens the momentum of the Pocket PC among Fortune 1000 enterprises, which are using it for their heavy-lifting mobile tasks — tasks which simply are not possible on lower-end devices,” Flores adds.

TCO Goes Down, ROI Goes Up

Enterprises stand to gain significantly from the new technology. Whereas high development costs have put mobile application development out of reach for many companies, they will now experience a more streamlined device development process that doesn’t require developer retraining. This will help companies reduce their cost of doing business by enabling them to develop new applications — whether on a Pocket PC or a device based on the forthcoming Windows CE .NET, such as a retail point-of-sale terminal — that increase the efficiency of their employees.

“From an IT management perspective, you want to know whether you can do the development in-house or whether you have to outsource it,” Lees says. “You want to know how long it’s going to take and how well it’s going to integrate with your existing systems. And you definitely care about security. In every one of these areas, we have improved the value proposition hands-down over what was available before.”

Because Microsoft is extending the .NET platform into the device world, companies will be able to interact transparently with the same .NET Enterprise Servers they have today. Whether the device interfaces with SQL Server, BizTalk or Exchange, the .NET Compact Framework is designed to make it easy for developers to integrate the Pocket PC or Windows CE-based device directly with those existing technologies.

“When you look at virtually every other company involved in mobile development today, they want companies to invest in an extra layer of middleware to integrate systems with mobile devices,” Lees says. “So it’s new software, higher costs, special training and more expensive consulting. As much as possible, we want to toss all that away. We want to help companies keep their costs down by enabling them to reuse their existing computing infrastructure.”

.NET Mobile Application a Perfect Solution for Newport News Shipbuilding

As an early customer of the .NET platform, Naptheon Inc., the information-services subsidiary of Newport News Shipbuilding, has already created a custom, .NET-based project management solution, called ShipRepair.net, for collaborative planning, execution and control of ship-repair projects. Naptheon is working with the technology preview release of the .NET Compact Framework to extend its .NET system to Pocket PC devices. When finished, the application will be deployed for Newport News inspectors and project managers overseeing work on some of the country’s largest ships, including nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines.

“When we heard about the .NET Compact Framework, we saw an opportunity to securely push ShipRepair.net application logic down to a smart device, allowing a ship inspector to carry a Pocket PC that holds a large database including the ship’s schematics, repair histories for the major systems on the ship, all of the different parts that might be needed, as well as all the work orders that exist for the project as he’s moving about the ship,” says Kenny Roberts, manager of e-business at Naptheon.

Because it’s next to impossible to maintain wireless connectivity below deck on an aircraft carrier, for example, the key challenge was to build a powerful, secure, client-side application on a device with sufficient storage and processing power. With a device in a disconnected state, inspectors need to be able to tour the ship, identify systems to be repaired and turn to the mobile device to look for an existing work order on the device’s database. If there’s no existing work order, they can enter a new one, which is then uploaded to the main ShipRepair.net system when the wired or wireless connection is restored.

“With the mobile capability of ShipRepair.net, Newport News can expect to streamline the inspection and approval process for ship overhaul projects, not only by eliminating the time it takes to fill out a hard-copy form on the site, leave the ship, get to a pier-side PC and enter the form data into the ShipRepair.net application, but also by having access to key project information at all times,” Roberts says. “For us, migrating and rolling out our former application into ShipRepair.net has been an extremely efficient project, and if everything goes as expected, we’ll have that investment paid for in less than two years.”

New Platform for Devices Cuts Development Time in Half

From a development standpoint, the significance of the .NET Compact Framework is evident. For the first time, developers can use a single programming model for all of their applications. Until now, they had to master different skills, APIs, SDKs and tools, which have made it too difficult and too costly for most companies to develop device applications. With the .NET Compact Framework, all of the benefits of .NET for the desktop and server apply to the device — including a multi-language, secure code-execution environment, and the same tools — the same forms designer, debugger, compilers, headers and toolbox components.

Naptheon engaged Applied Information Sciences (AIS) to develop the mobile client for the ShipRepair.net solution. AIS is a software engineering consulting firm and Microsoft partner, specializing in implementing Microsoft .NET-based solutions in enterprise environments.

“We chose the .NET Compact Framework, even though we were working with an early version of the product, because we had already written code in C# for ShipRepair.net, and it didn’t make sense to step back and use Embedded Visual Basic or Embedded C++ for the mobile device application,” says Craig Morris, lead designer at AIS. “As a result, it was very, very easy for us to develop this system.”

Because the mobile client had to be able to run in a disconnected state, it had to be written as a .NET Windows Forms application, as opposed to a server-side ASP .NET Web Forms application, which led AIS to select the .NET Compact Framework and C# as the development language. The Pocket PC client is a slimmed-down version of the Web application, and synchronization is handled via XML Web Services to a back-end SQL Server 2000 system and the Web update for SQL Server, which allows the application to send SQL requests to a virtual directory on the SQL Server system.

“It was a very easy transition for us to switch to the Windows Forms application for the Pocket PC and .NET Compact Framework after having worked on the ASP .NET Web Forms application,” Morris says. “It definitely reduced our development time, mostly because of the amount of code reuse. The data access is all the same and even some of the business logic behind our Windows Forms, such as handling control events, which we were able to pull right out of our Web application.”

AIS found that the familiarity of the development environment, combined with the ability to repurpose code from the parent .NET application, cut their development time in half.

“We were very impressed with the development environment,” Morris says. “We’ve been writing ASP .NET WebForms applications for the past year in .NET, and the ease of moving to a Windows Forms application on the Pocket PC platform just made this project a pleasure to work on. We think the .NET Compact Framework, with Visual Studio .NET, is going to be the premier mobile development tool in the coming years.”

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