The Rise and Fall of Visual Basic

Technology writer Matthew MacDonald began writing QuickBASIC code back in 1988 on the DOS operating system, sharing it on a 3.5-inch floppy disk. “I still remember writing code in white text on its cheery blue background…”

He tells his readers on Medium that “I have a confession to make. Before I became a respectable developer working with modern curly-bracket languages like C# and Java (and that hot mess of a platform we call JavaScript), I was a dedicated fan of the wildly popular misfit Visual Basic…”

At the same time that Microsoft released Windows 3.0 — the first version that was truly successful — they also launched Visual Basic 1.0. Here was something entirely new. You could create buttons for your programs by drawing them on the surface of a window, like it was some kind of art canvas. To make a button do something, all you had to do was double-click it in the design environment and write some code. And you didn’t use cryptic C++ code, with piles of classes, complex memory management, and obscure calls into the Windows API. Instead, you wrote friendly-looking VB code, like a civilized person.

All the graphical pizzazz was impressive, but the real secret to VB’s success was its practicality. There was simply no other tool that a developer could use to sketch out a complete user interface and get coding as quickly as VB… By the release of VB 6 — the last version of classic Visual Basic — it was estimated that there were ten times more coders writing in VB than in the unforgiving C++ language. And they weren’t just mocking up toy applications. Visual Basic wormed its way into company offices and even onto the web through ASP (Active Server Pages), another monstrously popular technology. Now you could create web pages that talked to VB components, called databases, and wrote HTML on the fly…

Today, Visual Basic is in a strange position. It has roughly 0% of the mindshare among professional developers — it doesn’t even chart in professional developer surveys or show up in GitHub repositories. However, it’s still out there in the wild, holding Office macros together, powering old Access databases and ancient ASP web pages, and attracting .NET newcomers. The TIOBE index, which attempts to gauge language popularity by looking at search results, still ranks VB in the top five most talked-about languages. But it seems that the momentum has shifted for the last time. In 2017, Microsoft announced that it would begin adding new language features to C# that might never appear in Visual Basic. The change doesn’t return VB to ugly duckling status, but it does take away some of its .NET status….

Visual Basic has been threatened before. But this time feels different. It seems like the sun is finally setting on one of the world’s most popular programming languages. Even if it’s true, Visual Basic won’t disappear for decades. Instead, it will become another legacy product, an overlooked tool without a passion or a future.

He remembers that the last versions of Visual Basic even supported object-oriented programming with interfaces, polymorphism, and class libraries, but argues that to create .NET, Microsoft “had to throw away almost all of classic VB.”

For example, “Classic VB programmers had to change the way they counted array elements. No longer could they start at 1, like ordinary people. Now they had to start at 0, like official programmers.”

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