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Deconstructing Add-In Architecture in Visual Studio .NET

The Visual Studio .NET extensibility model included with the IDE allows any developer to design and compile value-adding custom add-ins right out-of-the-box. No additional APIs or tools are required. Visual Studio .NET even provides a starting point for add-in developers with the Visual Studio .NET Add-In Project type.

isual Studio .NET provides an incredible leap forward from its predecessor in terms of functionality, but eventually, every developer finds a sought-after feature that just seems overlooked.

VS .NET provides great features and capabilities, from intelligent wizards to very useful drag-and-drop functionality such as that provided by the Server Explorer tool window. If there's a problem, it could be one of too much success. A simple stroll through the IDE reveals feature after productivity-inducing feature, providing the developer with a high set of expectations. Eventually, you may find that an expected feature is missing. Fortunately, Microsoft included a very powerful extensibility model, allowing integration of new, custom features directly into the IDE.

Microsoft has provided extensibility and automation object models for most of their products for as long as one can remember. For example, the automation model exposed by Microsoft Office provides the foundation of the entire VBA community. When you work within the world of the developer, the strength and power of the developer's tools will dictate productivity. The ceiling on productivity achievable by a developer bears a high-correlation with the number and usefulness of the features provided by the IDE. If you make the IDE better, developers will rejoice. Herein lays a major problem. For all the R&D money and general efforts placed into the design and development of it's products, Microsoft understands that it can never anticipate all the features the entire developer community might need or want. If they attempted to achieve that goal, the natural result would invariably be to occasionally actually ship an IDE—maybe once a decade or so.

This makes me think of the analogy of the fisherman. Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach him to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime. In similar fashion, if you trade fish for features, the moral of the story stands. It's better to give the developer the tools to create new, custom features, than to try and anticipate all the features that developers need. This is where the extensibility model of Visual Studio .NET, found in the EnvDTE and Extensibility namespaces, plays a role. Using these namespaces as a primary toolkit, the power developer will create extended capability and features, in the form of add-ins, that evolve the IDE into the customized power tool that can address all of the developer's needs. In essence, if the developer plays the role of the fisherman, than the extensibility model is the net in .NET.

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