On 10th Birthday, Microsoft Visual Basic Poised for Another Revolution in Software Development: .NET

Microsoft Visual Basic Timeline

REDMOND, Wash., June 19, 2001 — Michael Hoenig, a St. Louis-based software developer, appreciates the unprecedented ability to reuse existing code, the radically decreased time to market and the ability to program in a development environment that encourages collaboration. For Stephen Forte, a chief technology officer in New York, it’s the object-oriented language and direct access to the platform.

Hoenig and Forte are two of the more than 1 million developers who have already used the beta version of Microsoft Visual Basic .NET, the programming language and tool developers use to build applications for Windows, the Web and mobile devices.

For the more than 10,000 developers gathered this week in Atlanta for Microsoft’s annual Tech × Ed conference, Visual Basic .NET is a crucial component of the Visual Studio .NET development system, Microsoft’s flagship product for building next-generation applications and XML (eXtensible Markup Language) Web services. Visual Basic .NET represents the latest innovations in a product that has, from its inception 10 years ago, revolutionized software development.

Unveiled May 1991 at Windows World in Atlanta, the initial version of Visual Basic opened the world of computer programming to developers of all skill levels — from hobbyists to professionals — by enabling them to quickly build and run applications based on Microsoft’s Windows operating system. This year, Microsoft again plans to revolutionize the way developers build applications when it releases the final version of Visual Basic .NET, which will enable rapid application development, or RAD, for Windows, the Web and mobile devices.

The original Visual Basic paved the migration from DOS to Windows programming. Now, with Visual Basic .NET, a migration of equal magnitude is under way as application developers venture onto the Internet in increasing numbers.

“We’ve received amazing feedback from every single conference we’ve been to,” says Ari Bixhorn, technical product manager for Visual Basic .NET at Microsoft. “We want to make sure that Visual Basic .NET has everything a developer needs to build Windows, Web and mobile applications,” says Bixhorn, who trots the globe in search of input from developers, which he reports back to the product development team.

Long Term-Benefits ‘Through the Roof’

Forte, a chief technology officer at Zagat Survey in New York City, calls Visual Basic .NET “a great product.” Zagat Survey uses surveys and synthesized data to generate guidebooks covering everything from restaurants to spas. Zagat polls more than 150,000 people per year and translates numerical data on topics that include room decor, service, costs and the convenience of shopping and local transportation into little red guidebooks. Zagat also publishes content on its Web site, Zagat.com. Zagat readers can access reviews and ratings on palm pilots and cellular telephones as well.

Forte, who has used the beta version of Visual Basic .NET for several months, oversees the publisher’s migration from strictly print to the Internet, leading development teams and watching over all the coding — the “geeky side of the business,” he says. By drawing on the power of XML, Forte reports, Visual Basic .NET simplifies data collection, system-wide content management and aggregation, and the importation of data into print-ready and Internet-based formats alike.

Like the transition from typewriters to word processing, the switch to an object-oriented language thrusts programming into a whole new era. “I really like the change in Visual Basic .NET to embrace object-oriented programming,” Forte says. “The old way was called procedural, and it required you to write lots of code in a straight line. With object-oriented language features, you build frameworks and templates that make maintenance easier and allow you to reuse the basic code.”

Objects are the nuts and bolts of the programming world — necessary, basic-level components that make code more maintainable, reusable and easier to manage. They often represent real-world entities. In the case of the surveys that Zagat uses to gather data, an object can represent an actual survey, or a person being surveyed, or an account to which the survey is directed or credited. An object brokers communication between the user interface and database while simultaneously enforcing business rules.

In Visual Basic .NET the objects can be reused — or inherited — from one application to the next, eliminating the need to rewrite code for each individual application. In non-developer terms, it’s like having the ability to update a single field on a dozen spreadsheets by updating just one. “For us, that means we can go from a survey on nightlife to one on restaurants without having to rewrite all of the basic code,” Forte says. “That will save a tremendous amount of time.”

Forte says he expects Visual Basic .NET to improve nearly all aspects of the development process. “The long-term benefits of Visual Basic .NET are through the roof,” he says. “Visual Basic .NET integrates with our desktop publishing software, which makes galleys that go to the printer. At the same time, XML sends data up to the Web site. We’re also using Visual Basic .NET to publish to wireless environments.”

Visual Basic Grows Up

Hoenig, president of mhe.net, a St. Louis-based Internet technology provider, thinks the arrival of Visual Basic .NET signals a coming of age for Visual Basic developers.

“Visual Basic is no longer an entry-level language that’s easy to code but slow,” Hoenig says. “It’s still the quickest way to build applications, but now, with the Common Language Run-time (CLR), Visual Basic developers have access to an unprecedented amount of power. Every language accesses the same set of powerful functions built into the CLR.”

Last year, mhe.net, which specializes in the development of software services, released SecureCreditServer.net, a Web service that acts as a portal to business and consumer credit information. SecureCreditServer.net addresses security and connectivity issues for industries ranging from financial services to business intelligence. Through the Web services model, businesses pay as they grow and benefit from a completely outsourced service.

Visual Basic .NET, Hoenig says, changes the way his firm approaches application development. “Building Web applications was analogous to programming in a DOS environment, meaning you had to poke at the code to see how things were turning out,” he says. “With Visual Basic .NET we’re able to step through the code and see what’s going on in a rich environment. In addition, deployment with the copy and paste feature dramatically reduces complexity.”

Hoenig, too, is impressed with the object-oriented language that drives Visual Basic .NET. He’s pleased overall with the development system’s performance. “Migration was surprisingly easy,” he says. “It was remarkably easy to convert existing code. The upgrade wizard makes it a very straightforward, clear-cut process, even for those of us with extensive libraries and in-house tools.”

Visual Basic .NET’s biggest impact will be in generally boosting developer innovation, Hoenig says. “Visual Basic .NET makes it easy for everyone to build XML Web services. That will force development companies to innovate in order to stay ahead of the curve. With the ability of .NET, it won’t be easy.”

The Next 10 Years

Microsoft’s Bixhorn sees three key trends emerging for developers over the next decade: continued growth of Internet-based software; the emergence of mobile software to run on devices such as pocket PCs and smart phones; and, most significantly, the continued move to build XML Web services.

“From day one, integration of applications has been a problem,” Bixhorn says. “At first it was integrating internally, but with the move to the Internet the complexity increases considerably.”

Visual Basic .NET uses XML to address that complexity, Bixhorn says. “The Internet is highly heterogeneous, with different companies, software and platforms,” he says. “We’re solving that dilemma by using technology that builds on open Internet standards that are in use across the industry. Using Visual Basic .NET, building and consuming XML Web services is as easy as building the Windows applications.”

Bixhorn is especially pleased with the fact that Visual Basic .NET addresses a key issue in the developer world. “This language allows developers to build on their skills rather than start over,” he says. That’s timely, given the fact that there are nearly 3.5 million Visual Basic developers around the world but a pronounced shortage of Web developers. “Visual Basic revolutionized software development 10 years ago, and with Visual Basic .NET we’re doing it again,” Bixhorn says.

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