Microsoft Scales Back VB Changes

The company heeds developer concerns and focuses Visual Basic.Net on backward consistency.

Developers welcomed Microsoft Corp.s decision last week to scrap some of its planned changes for Visual Basic.Net but said the decision may fall short of selling them on the .Net version of the programming language.

The first beta version of VB.Net, released last fall, contained more than 70 changes from the way Visual Basic had traditionally worked. The changes triggered concern among many Visual Basic developers, who complained that the migration was going to be too time-consuming and expensive and the changes would force them to rewrite code, rearchitect designs and hunt for bugs.

"Any time they change the definition of keywords or data types, thats going to be a problem," said Karl Peterson, an independent Visual Basic developer based in Vancouver, Wash. "It would present cases where you have to know what version of the language a given code snippet is written in before you know [what it will do]. The consequences can be huge."

Microsoft officials last week said they are rolling back some of the changes in response to developer concerns for the second beta phase, scheduled for this summer. The changes were intended to make Visual Basic more consistent with other programming languages, such as Java and C#, but developers were more concerned with the consistency with previous versions of Visual Basic, according to the Redmond, Wash., software maker.

The three changes highlighted by Microsoft are as follows: There will be a reinstatement of the value of the constant true to -1; the Boolean operators "and" and "or" will continue to act as logical and bitwise operators; and the declaration of an array of integers will revert to the Visual Basic 6 semantics. The changes will not delay VB.Nets second beta or commercial release, due by the end of the year, Microsoft officials said.

Dan Barclay, a Visual Basic developer and president of Barclay Software Inc., of Orange, Texas, said the jury is still out on whether the changes are enough for true language stability. "The issue is allowing developers to reuse code they have written," Barclay said. "Code is an asset to a developer, like any corporate asset."

While the changes reversed are "poster childs" of the problem, they dont resolve all of the issues, he said.

"One of the things Microsoft has done accidentally here is caused developers, who probably wouldnt have given a second thought in terms of migration, to start looking at other alternatives," Barclay said.

Those alternatives include Borland Software Corp.s Delphi, Sun Microsystems Inc.s Java and Microsofts own C#.

"I dont know anyone who isnt doing that right now," Peterson said of the search for alternatives. "Web developers are used to new paradigms every three months, but the people building the legacy apps of tomorrow need to know theyre still going to work in five or 10 years."

But not every Visual Basic user is against the changes Microsoft made in moving the language to .Net. Zane Thomas, president of Mabry Software Inc., of Stanwood, Wash., said Visual Basic was facing significant pressure from newer technologies with lighter-weight object models. The changes arent more substantial than Microsofts move from DOS to Windows, and theyre needed, Thomas said.

"The future of Basic as a language was fairly limited," he said. "I think bringing VB more in line with Java and C# is really kind of preserving a future for that programming language."