The first beta of Microsoft’s new LightSwitch development environment should be available on MSDN about the time you read this. LightSwitch was code-named “KittyHawk” during its incubation (using Microsoft’s proprietary GratuiToUs capitalizatIon algorithm) and is the basis for the “return of FoxPro” rumors that have been kicking around recently. It is not, though, an evolution of the FoxPro or xBase languages, but rather a new Visual Studio SKU that produces applications backed by either C# or Visual Basic and deployed on either Silverlight or the full .NET CLR. It does, however, embrace the “data + screens = programs” concept of programming that was so popular in the late 1980s.

This is, in some ways, an indictment. A Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep at the launch of Visual Basic 1.0 and woke at the Silverlight unveiling would be unlikely to guess that 20 years had passed. Apparently, programming is still the realm of an elite group that cannot quickly produce small- and medium-sized data-driven applications, and does so using hard-to-use tools that require a lot of repetitious, boring, error-prone work.

It seems the solution to this is a tool that hides as much code as possible from the power user or newer developer. Even if you buy that argument (and I’m not at all sure that you should), why should you believe the “this time we got it right” assurance that applications written by newcomers will not be fragile, poorly structured and unable to scale?

The answer to the scaling part of that question is Azure. Microsoft is pushing the message that they are “all in” to cloud computing, and LightSwitch can use Azure to host your data, your application, or both. The LightSwitch code-generation process takes care of paging, caching logic, data validation, and other sorts of code that, no doubt, can cause trouble, especially for less-experienced developers.

On the other hand, scaling is no different than any other hard problem in software development—a trade-off that was logical at one scale may not be a good choice at another scale. It’s not impossible to have an application that can scale without the developer directly addressing issues of lazy evaluation, data aliasing and so forth, but it’s a crapshoot.

Microsoft emphasizes that LightSwitch is built on the .NET stack, not an alternative. When an application “grows up” and is considered for department or enterprise deployment, professional developers can open a LightSwitch project in one of the more advanced Visual Studio SKUs and continue working. That’s the great promise of LightSwitch: You don’t have to decide between an easy-to-use database-oriented language and the more mainstream programming languages.

The backing by the major .NET languages is a key differentiator between LightSpeed and PHP, its true competitor. Microsoft has finally woken up to the perception that the IIS Web Server and .NET stack is difficult for beginners and casual developers, as well as for quick-and-dirty applications. LightStack and IIS Express (a version of IIS 7 that fits better in security-conscious corporate environments) aim to bring back what was arguably Microsoft’s greatest advantage: It owned the technology that trained a generation of developers.

The development world is far more fragmented now, but PHP is closer than anything else to delivering the “gee whiz” that was part of the appeal of GW-BASIC.