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With as many.NET developers as there are BlackBerry users, it’s about time Research in Motion provided some Visual Studio development tools. There's not too long to wait, as RIM used its Wireless Enterprise Symposium this week to unveil its first Visual Studio plug-in.

Don't be confused - this isn't a .NET solution, and RIM hasn't ported the .NET CLR to its BlackBerry handsets. The company is remaining resolutely Java. Instead, RIM is taking its MDS Studio rapid application development tool and is turning it into a VSIP Visual Studio extension. As MDS Studio uses JavaScript and XML to deliver form-based applications that consume web services, it's easy to see how this fits in with Visual Studio and .NET.

Screenshot showing MDS VS plugin.

The MDS Visual Studio plug-in gives you a mock BlackBerry screen where you

can place controls before hooking them up to web services and JavaScript code.

RIM is expecting developers to use the MDS plug-in to add BlackBerry user interfaces to existing and new applications. Once it's installed, all you’ll need to do is add a BlackBerry MDS project to your existing solution (which will need to expose web services to the outside world). Application development takes a similar approach to MDS Studio, with a layout-based development environment, a set of controls that can be dragged onto the layout. Controls can be programmed declaratively, with additional business logic coming from JavaScript code snippets.

Once you’ve created a BlackBerry project you’ll see a device screen in the layout area. The plug-in also adds a set of BlackBerry controls to the Visual Studio toolbox. There are some differences from the MDS Studio here, as RIM is using Windows naming conventions and icons. Applications are built by dragging controls to the layout, and using the Visual Studio properties dialog boxes to tie them to events, messages and code snippets.

As MDS applications rely on web services for access to remote data sources, the plug-in makes the sensible choice to use the existing Visual Studio web reference wizard to pull in web service definitions. The MDS server can be configured to transmit only specific fields in a web service response to BlackBerry devices, keeping data costs to a minimum. Once you’ve attached web references to your BlackBerry project, you can use the Visual Studio properties pane to attach events and fields to controls – much like using .NET data bindings. You can also use the same approach to link directly into the BlackBerry device APIs, giving your MDS application direct access to users’ calendars and address books. RIM also adds full JavaScript IntelliSense support to the Visual Studio editor, simplifying adding business logic to your application controls.

As well as providing tools for building client-side applications, the MDS Visual Studio plug-in also adds a set of server side tools and DLLs to use a BES to push data directly to a device. This allows Visual Studio developers to user server code to pre-populate application fields, and to push data updates to users out in the field.

MDS is a tool for building business applications, and while you get access to many of the BlackBerry APIS, some aren't available. These include the media player and specific hardware APIs, like the GP built into some newer BlackBerry devices. You'll also find that you won't be able to import existing MDS Studio applications into Visual Studio - RIM is marketing this as a tool for new projects and currently doesn't have any plans for tools to transfer projects between versions.

As RIM uses VSIP, Windows developers will be able to use familiar debugging tools (including setting breakpoints in MDS JavaScripts) to find any problems in their applications. A bundled set of device simulators and a local instance of the MDS server (normally available as part of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server) are included as part of the installer, and can be used to run and test code before you press the big red button and deploy it to all your company's BlackBerries...

The MDS Visual Studio plug-in is currently in closed beta, but a public release will be available shortly here. ®

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