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Rich Content Rotator for ASP.NET

Web developers are always on the lookout for great products to add dynamic effects to their Web pages

Web developers are always on the lookout for great products to add dynamic effects to their Web pages. Dynamic pages, often called DHTML pages, make use of slide shows, random content rotation, and news scrollers, and are generally developed using languages such as Visual Basic, Java, JavaScript, and VBScript. Many developers also use Macromedia Flash and other animation tools. Although it is possible to create dynamic pages with these languages, developers face many challenges, such as cross-browser compatibility issues, complex code, high maintainability requirements, and slow loading.

Classic ASP supplied the Ad Rotator component for developing DHTML applications, but it doesn't provide the required functionality. What is needed is a product with great features and functions that requires less maintenance. Developers realized that only event-driven components can provide this added functionality. Components are reusable controls that can be deployed as a single unit. Such components may contain several thousand lines of code, including complex methods or functions.

Developers don't need to know how these components were designed and developed; they need only know how to use and apply them to their Web pages. Many developers began developing controls on their own using Visual Basic 6.0 or Visual C++ 6.0. But most were hesitant to implement such controls for several reasons, including security concerns and rendering issues. Such components are known as ActiveX components; in order to use them, users have to enable ActiveX on their browsers. Many beginning users were unaware of this and hence the display of these pages was affected to a large extent. This scenario has completely changed with the evolution of .NET. Now, many vendors offer components that can be used to perform a wide variety of tasks, simplifying the work of many developers and customers.

Rich Content Rotator, one of the most useful and robust components, was developed by CYBERAKT Inc. (www.cyberakt.com). With Rich Content Rotator, you can create dynamic scrollers and tickers on the fly. It comes with four different licensing options, explained in the Pricing section. The real data comes from either an XML file or a SQL Server database. The main advantage of this component is that you don't have to reinvent the wheel in order to develop animated Web pages. Everything is built into it. Once you understand its usage, the rest of the work is pretty simple and straightforward.

I tested the product on a Pentium IV 2.4GHz with 512MB RAM system running Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1. The entire download (www.richcontentrotator.com/download.aspx) took 5-10 minutes. Note: This may vary depending upon your connection speed. The product comes as a single executable file named RichContentRotator_setup.exe, which is around 953KB.

Once you have downloaded the file, run its setup to install the product. Installation normally takes less than two minutes, but it depends upon your system configuration. I encountered no problems during installation. You have to enter the appropriate license key when prompted to continue the installation process. If you have downloaded a free trial version you will occasionally get demo warnings. The product folder, named RichContentRotator, will be installed in the Program Files folder of your root drive. Inside this folder you will find a file named RichContentRotator.dll. This file is the component; it contains all of the magic. The component comes with a readme file containing important information but unfortunately this file isn't found on the Start menu after installation. The product also ships with a lot of sample applications and demos that you can freely use in your own projects.

All Web Forms (.aspx) and XML files of the sample applications are nicely organized in folders, but they are not installed by default. You have to manually install them by running the RichContentRotator_examples.msi file. The sample files are installed in the virtual directory, RichContentRotator, inside the Inetpub/wwwroot directory and hence you can access them by supplying the URL http://localhost/RichContentRotator.

The product also includes a small tutorial, which from my point of view is a real bonus for developers and customers. CYBERAKT's Web site displays live demos (www.richcontentrotator.com/demo_simpleNews.aspx) of the examples used. You can access the code on the pages themselves. You simply need to copy and paste the code using a text editor such as Notepad. I copied the code directly to the Visual Studio .NET editor, but some weird characters were pasted in instead of the actual code. It's better to copy the code to Notepad and then to VS.NET. I did this and it worked well.

Now let's look at how to apply this control in an ASP.NET page. I used Visual Studio .NET 2003 Final Beta to test the product. You can also use Visual Studio .NET 2002 or ASP.NET Web Matrix. If you use Notepad you have to enter all the code from scratch, which will be a tedious process. But I enjoy it. First, I suggest you copy the DLL file to the Common7/IDE directory. You will find this folder inside the Visual Studio .NET installation folder. After firing up Visual Studio .NET, you have to add the component to the Toolbox. This can be done by right-clicking on it and selecting Add/Remove Items. Click on the browse button, then locate and select the RichContentRotator.dll file. Finally, click the Open and OK buttons. If all goes well you will find two components named ContentRotator and Ticker in the Toolbox. The next step is to place an instance of the component on the form and set the various properties such as RotationType, Scroll-Direction, etc. Take a moment to scan through all the properties of the component. If you are a Visual Basic programmer, you will have no difficulty understanding them. As I explained above, the real data comes from an XML file and hence the XmlContentFile property is very important.

Even though all the demos shipped with the product are useful, I will show you how to write a sample program using this component. As you may know, Visual Studio .NET automatically adds the relevant code for a component as soon as you place it on the form. But you have to dress it up by adding a SlideTemplate. This template defines the look and feel of the component by using the data binding syntax. If you have worked with ADO.NET, you already know about the syntax of the data-binding code. The complete code for the sample program I used for testing is shown in Listing 1, available for download from www.sys-con.com/dotnet/sourcec.cfm.

That's all there is to it. Press F5 to compile and run the program. If there are no errors or warnings you should be able to see the scrolling of the data. If you want to add more data, you can do this by simply updating the relevant XML file. Visual Studio .NET automatically opens the browser upon successful compilation. Keep in mind that the loop executes continuously by default. Once you have successfully created a sample program as illustrated above you can freely modify the various settings from the properties window, activated by pressing F4.

Try to change some of the important properties such as Loop, RotationType, ShowEffect, and ScrollDirection. For example, modify the ShowEffect property to Fade and observe the result. But before doing this you should change the RotationType property to SlideShow for maximum results. I hit F5 to compile and run the program whenever I change any property. The main advantage of using Visual Studio .NET is its simplicity when setting the various properties. If you use Notepad then you have to know the various properties of the component. I strongly recommend that you download and install ASP.NET Web Matrix if you don't have Visual Studio .NET. I also tested the product using ASP.NET Web Matrix and noticed slightly different results while adding the DLL to the Toolbox.

The product also ships with another component, named "Ticker". It can be used for creating news scrollers, displaying sports scores, etc. Instead of an XML file, you can directly supply the content with Ticker's Text property. The code for the Ticker component is shown below:

<cyberakt:Ticker id="Ticker1" style="Z-INDEX: 102;
LEFT: 64px; POSITION: absolute; TOP: 184px"
runat="server" Text="Welcome to sys-con.com">

I discovered that the ContentRotator and Ticker components can be easily integrated into a single application in order to utilize the functionality of both. In that case the real data for the Ticker's Text property comes from an XML file and you can apply it by using the data-binding technique I discussed earlier. The vendor's Web site displays a working demo (www.richcontentrotator.com/demo_tickerSequence.aspx) of this feature.

Unfortunately, the product doesn't come with documentation in HTML Help Format (.chm file). Many developers and customers prefer this format because it helps them to easily navigate between topics. Among other things, a help file should also clearly explain the various properties of the two components and their values so that it will benefit those customers and developers using plain Notepad. I hope the vendor will include this in the next release of the product.

I must say that the current documentation system is nearly perfect since it provides all of the files for the sample applications. CYBERAKT also provides online support, along with a free newsletter subscription so that you will always be updated when a new release of the product occurs. The vendor's Web site says that once you purchase the current version of the component, you will get a license for all the future 1.X versions of the product at no additional charge. The current license key will be valid for the upcoming versions also.

Company Info:
108 Pine Crest Rd.
Toronto, ON M6P 3G5
Phone: 416.622.2923
E-mail: [email protected]
Web: www.cyberakt.com

Test Environment
Pentium IV 2.4GHz with 512MB RAM, Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1

Free Trial Version (with rendering warning)
Application Edition: $79
Developer Edition: $199
Corporate Site Edition: $1,199

More Stories By Anand Narayanaswamy

Anand Narayanaswamy, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP), works as an independent consultant based in Trivandrum, India. He also works as chief technical editor for ASPAlliance.com and is the author of Community Server Quickly (http://www.packtpub.com/community-server/book), published by Packt Publishing. He runs http://www.Learnxpress.com, http:/www.dotnetalbum.com and http://www.csharpfaq.com. Find out more about him and his other websites at http://www.visualanand.net.

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