Developer

Can ASP.NET Starter Kits put your Web development in overdrive?

Microsoft's ASP.NET Starter Kits can help you roll out a full-featured Web site fast. But what are the pluses and minuses of this free Microsoft offering?


Many Microsoft-centric Web developers (myself included) prefer to use packaged applications for building commercial Web sites. But others resort to building their own Web applications from scratch due to feature requirements or budgetary constraints. If you fall into that category, you should take a serious look at ASP.NET Starter Kits as a means of jump-starting your development.

The Starter Kits are similar to non-Microsoft kits such as Interchange. They're free ASP.NET sample applications that include source code and SQL Server database schemas. Five Starter Kits became available as a public beta on Feb. 11, 2003.

The Starter Kits
  • The Time Tracker Starter Kit demonstrates how to build a line-of-business ASP.NET application to track time worked on projects. The Time Tracker Starter Kit allows the project manager to create projects and task categories and then have team members log tasks completed each day.
  • The Reports Starter Kit demonstrates a simple data reporting solution for displaying multiple views of data, creating charts, and rendering any type of data in a Web application. Report types include master-details tables, graphing/chart creation, and drill-down tables.
  • The Commerce Starter Kit, an update and rebranding of the IBuySpy Store sample, demonstrates an e-commerce storefront application, complete with shopping cart, product catalog, and a Web service to submit orders.
  • The ASP.NET Portal Starter Kit, an update and rebranding of the IBuySpy Portal sample, demonstrates how you can use ASP.NET and the .NET Framework to build a dynamic portal application.

What the Starter Kits provide
You can download the Starter Kits as a Zip file, and their setup borders on trivial. They're available in C# and VB.NET versions. (Microsoft plans to release J# versions soon.) Each kit is available in either a Visual Studio .NET or SDK version. The SDK version is designed for use with non-VS.NET IDEs or text editors (like the free ASP.NET Web Matrix project and Notepad). The Visual Studio .NET version is for use with Visual Studio. The Starter Kits require that SQL Server or an MSDE database engine be installed on your machine. (MSDE is provided for free on the download site.)

The source code appears to be well documented, and I believe you will find the Starter Kits to be highly functional. The code they contain is reusable by expert and novice alike.

Commerce Starter Kit functionality
The Starter Kits are not finished products, and they are not integrated. For example, the Commerce Starter Kit does not provide functionality to gather credit card information and does not integrate out of the box with the Community Starter Kit. The Commerce Starter Kit does, however, provide substantial functionality in the form of:
  • Product catalogs
  • Product descriptions, photos, and reviews
  • Searches by product name/category
  • "Also bought" and "Popular items" features
  • Instant Order Web services
  • Order submissions from any application
  • User accounts
  • Shopping carts

Bear in mind that these Starter Kits are not intended to replace Commerce Server, which offers configurable workflow, management of category/product offerings, localization, and gathering of credit card information. However, they can still be useful for implementing basic features and getting up to speed with ASP.NET.

Starter Kits vs. Commerce Server
I appreciate Microsoft’s gift of source code, but let’s take a minute to analyze the business driver for the Starter Kits, focusing on the Commerce Kit. There is no doubt that Microsoft prefers to make money on commerce implementations by selling full-blown installations of Microsoft Commerce Server. The Commerce Starter Kit is aimed at small companies and independent developers who find Commerce Server outside their budgets. In addition, Commerce Server is designed to be a highly scalable enterprise application, supported by Microsoft, while the Commerce Starter Kit offers just a code sample—and the support must come from the community.

Microsoft faces a dilemma here, since adding functionality to the Commerce Starter Kit could potentially impede sales of its bigger brother. So I don’t believe we’ll see Microsoft adding any more functionality to the individual Commerce Kit, and probably not to the other kits, either. On the other hand, we can expect to see a community of developers starting to build add-ons for these kits and marketing them through http://www.asp.net/. In addition, Microsoft has indicated that it will likely provide additional Starter Kits as the need arises.

The Web Matrix Project
The Web Matrix is a lightweight IDE for ASP.NET, which you can download for free. For more details, check out this review of Matrix.

Conclusion
Smaller businesses that can't afford the costs associated with the custom development that the Commerce Starter Kit would require might consider other alternatives, such as using a hosted store like those Yahoo offers. But those companies, and for shops that prefer to create their apps from scratch, the ASP.NET Starter Kits may provide a more logical and economical starting point.

 

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