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You Just Can't Kill Visual Basic

Pundits are still predicting an uncertain future for VB, showing a complete misunderstanding of the issues that make a programming language popular and ignoring the very spirit of VB itself.

or a decade people have been predicting the demise of Visual Basic, and with VB.NET, nothing has changed. According to one recent report, the future of VB.NET is threatened competitively by its free cousin, C#. Even after all these years, some people still don't understand that VB—and now VB.NET— will continue to be one of the world's most popular programming languages. Sure, some VB programmers will switch to C#, Java, or Delphi, but the very fact that they would consider making the change highlights the fact that these languages have evolved over time to address issues of usability and functionality that Visual Basic invented. Whatever happens to VB, the language, the spirit of VB has conquered the programming world, and will live on. In fact, VB, as a concept, has never been more alive.

A Visible Success
The earliest releases of Visual Basic didn't make a huge splash, but the language was innovative and attracted considerable attention as a new programming paradigm, because it let programmers build forms visually. For the first time, people could drag and drop controls onto a design surface and see how a program would look without going through the lengthy edit-compile-test cycles required by other languages.

VB further reduced the edit-compile-test cycle by performing an end-run around it. VB classic, like many earlier BASIC implementations, was an interpreted language; you could edit VB code at runtime. The VB IDE could apply most code changes immediately, even while the application was running, letting you step through a block of code in the debugger, find errors, fix them and then retest the code without stopping the program to recompile. Called "edit and continue," this feature gave VB a major productivity boost over older edit-compile-test languages.

Programmers loved being able to drag and drop controls, but they weren't completely satisfied with the built-in controls. Fortunately, Microsoft made the architecture for building those controls available to the programming community. Soon, enterprising developers created hundreds of "VBX" controls (and later, ActiveX controls), spawning an entire industry and taking the idea of reusable code to new levels.

VB was also the first popular general-purpose language to offer truly integrated database access. Via Microsofts Data Access Objects (DAO) technology, working with relational databases in VB became so simple that in many cases developers didn't need to know anything about how the underlying relational databases worked; they could simply drag-and-drop database-aware controls onto forms. Even for more advanced developers, DAO (and its successors such as, RDO, ADO, and now ADO.NET) provided huge productivity increases.

By version three, VB was stable and fast. It had the best IDE available, and was accessible to millions of part-time programmers. VB rapidly became the world's most popular application programming language, and it has maintained that position despite predictions of its demise and substantial changes to the language itself.

It has maintained its popularity because VB delivers the six things that corporate developers care most about.

  1. A BASIC-like, case-insensitive syntax
  2. Visual design capabilities
  3. A great IDE with an integrated debugger
  4. Edit-and-continue
  5. A variety of inexpensive, robust aftermarket controls
  6. Simple, integrated database support

Other languages have offered a subset of these features, but none have succeeded in capturing the huge market that VB enjoyed.

Other vendors have long been covetous of VB's developer base, and made huge efforts to lure VB developers to other platforms. For example, Borland's Delphi language offered everything that VB did except the BASIC-like syntax and edit-and-continue. In fact, Delphi provided more capabilities than VB. For example, it was much faster. Delphi code executes at speeds essentially identical to that of C++. Delphi also shipped with native data-aware controls for its DBase and Interbase desktop databases. In later versions Delphi even provided ADO wrappers.

But Delphi used an Object Pascal language base rather than a BASIC core and that single feature change helped prevent its widespread adoption. Despite being faster and offering true object-oriented programming (OOP) capability—in short, all the features of VB.NET in a COM-based package—Delphi was never a serious contender for VB's popularity crown.

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