New Visual Basic worries some developers

IT is all about reinventing the wheel. More specifically, it’s about going from a plain wheel, to a wheel with bells to, a wheel with bells and whistles to a wheel with bells, whistles and a strobe light. The plain wheel still works okay, but it’s kind of slow, not very flashy and so six months ago.

Microsoft has invented a new, more powerful wheel, but some fans of its old wheel are a bit hesitant to see how this new one handles.

Robert Windsor, vice-president and Webmaster of the Toronto Visual Basic User Group (TVBUG) predicts that once Visual Basic.NET hits the market some Visual Basic 6.0 (VB6) will have a difficult time in making the move over to the new language.

“There’s always resistance to change,” Windsor said. “In my experience, there is a wider range of skill levels of a Visual Basic developer than there are in a lot of other tools, so there are people who don’t use a lot of the power that’s even in the current versions of Visual Basic. A lot of things for those kinds of developers, who don’t understand how things work behind the scenes, might be more difficult.”

“Developers who have more experience and understand a little bit more about how the changes in the tool are really going to help them create better applications will really be looking forward to this tool. I’ve been wishing a lot of the things they’re putting in had been there for a long time.”

Visual Basic.NET is full of significant changes from Visual Basic 6.0. Part of Microsoft’s new .NET framework, VB.NET includes a new optional error handling structure, namespaces, true inheritance and free threading, among other changes. According to Windsor, “It’s really almost not the same language anymore.”

David Lazar, lead product manager for developer tools marketing for Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash., addressed this issue.

“We’ve had a hard time with Visual Basic because there’s such a large community, ” Lazar explained. “IDC recently came out with a study that showed eight million Visual Basic developers in the world. With a population that size, you get a lot of diverse and divergent opinions.”

Lazar admitted that the response to Microsoft’s announcement about the new tool as extreme from the VB community.

“I’ve heard it compared with a heart/lung transplant,” Lazar laughed. “Imagine if we were going to give you a heart/lung transplant, but we didn’t tell you exactly how we were going to sew things back up again and about all the great drugs we were going to give you to make sure you recovered. That’s where a lot of VB developers have felt that they are. There have been a lot of questions like ‘Is this going to be my VB?’ ‘Am I going to be able to move to this?’ ‘Is my code going to be compatible?’ ‘Am I going to be able to learn this?’ ‘What benefits are there going to be to upgrading to this?’ This has created a lot of dynamic tension within the community.”

Michael Flynn, Microsoft Canada’s Mississauga, Ont., marketing manager for developer tools said that while developers using Beta 1 of Visual Basic.NET had some difficulty in migrating applications from Visual Basic 6.0 to the new language, these problems have been addressed in Beta 2.

“The conversion tools in Version 2, from converting VB6 to VB.NET are incredibly robust,” Flynn said. “I know the first version wasn’t good, but the second version is outstanding. From what I hear very early developed VB6 apps are porting over almost 100 per cent to VB.NET with very little manual changes.”

According to Lazar, many of these changes were made in large part because of feedback from VB users.

“We’ve incorporated some feedback that we got between Beta 1 and Beta 2,” Lazar said. “[Developers] said, ‘There are things that if you just reverted them back to the way they were before it would make our lives a lot easier and we could recover a lot more of the code from our previous applications.’ We listened to that. It was a choice between the purity we designed in Beta 1 and the practicality that people wanted from it. We went to practicality on a few things and that is giving people a lot more comfort.”

Beta 2 of Visual Basic.NET is currently available. Microsoft is projecting that release candidate 1 of the tool will be ready by November, and that it will be on shelves in stores for resale in early 2002.