A team of Kiwi software developers is among the first in the world to deploy applications developed in Microsoft’s .Net compact framework.
The Newmarket-based development division of New York-based supply chain company NCS has rewritten three mobile applications under the framework and sold them to US food and beverage company Dean Foods for its delivery fleet.
The compact framework is a version of the .Net framework aimed at mobile application developers. The framework, which includes the runtime environment and class libraries needed to run .Net applications and services on mobile devices, is due for release next year. NCS is part of Microsoft’s early adopter programme and has been using a beta release.
NCS wanted to redevelop three separate mobile sales force applications which didn’t share objects, making they difficult to deploy and maintain. EXpress Route was written in Borland C++ and PenRight Mobile Builder, a development tool for handhelds, and ran on handheld devices as well as DOS with a GUI front end. EXpress Sales Force was a tablet application written with Visual Basic 6.0 that ran on Windows 95, 98 and NT. EXpress Merchandiser, which ran on Windows CE and DOS, was written using Borland C++ and PenRight.
NCS wanted a single development environment that would be able to run on Windows desktop, tablet and Pocket PC devices.
It considered eMbedded Visual Basic — but felt it was too limited — and eMbedded Visual C++, but didn’t want to have to build separate executables for each Windows CE platform. It finally chose the .Net compact framework using Visual Studio .Net with C# as the language to build a unified mobile application framework it called eXpress Route, which offered shared code but separate front ends for the Route, SalesForce and Merchandiser applications.
Running on handheld devices, the applications now allow mobile sales reps to sell from their vehicles, load inventory, print invoices, collect payments and reconcile transactions automatically at the end of the day.
NCS development manager Mike O’Leary says NCS decided to split eXpress Route into three distinct parts — a shared business object assembly, a shared communications model and a front end.
The eXpress Suite Business Objects, a C# assembly, includes things such as customer functions, product functions and information about the setting. The business object also includes custom controls that are common to the three front ends, such as the customer list control. In general, the business object does not display anything except for critical errors. It communicates with the database, which is SQL Server CE (which has built-in support for .Net compact framework and is free) or SQL Server 2000.
The eXpress Suite comms module controls the uploading/downloading and processing of data files — initially NCS is using handheld computers by US-based Intermec. The transmission format is XML data files — giving the ability to communicate with XML web services in the future.
“The basic procedure is that some downloaded XML files are presented to a directory on the device and then we load the XML files — that include schema — and convert them into an SQL Server CE database table,” says O’Leary. “The upload process is almost the opposite. XML files are built from the database and placed in a directory that the communications module then transfers.”
The eXpress Route Front End controls the display of all information and flow through the application. NCS uses Windows Forms and custom Windows Forms controls and there will be two more front ends for the other two applications.
Sun’s rival development environment to the compact framework is J2ME (Java 2 Micro Edition).