- Last month, Microsoft announced it will no longer add new language features to its Visual Basic programming language, first released in 1991.
- Visual Basic is an upgraded version of the BASIC programming language that Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates authored, and quickly established itself as an easy way for novice programmers especially to build simple Windows software.
- Scott Hunter, director of program management for Microsoft .NET, says Microsoft wanted Visual Basic “to stay in the spirit of being an easy-to-use language.”
- The idea is that ending development on Visual Basic will keep it stable for the 700,000 monthly active developers still using it, while also encouraging them to move to more modern frameworks and languages.
- The next version of Microsoft’s .NET programming framework will actually support code written in Visual Basic.
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Last month, Microsoft announced that it would stop adding new language features to Visual Basic, a programming language first shipped in 1991 as one of the tech titan’s first major efforts in making it easier for people to learn to code. As the name implies, it adds a visual, drag-and-drop element to coding simple software for Windows.
In a blog post last month, Microsoft wrote, “One of the major benefits of using Visual Basic is that the language has been stable for a very long time. The significant number of programmers using Visual Basic demonstrates that its stability and descriptive style is valued. Going forward, we do not plan to evolve Visual Basic as a language.”
Visual Basic will largely freeze in place in terms of adding new programming language features, but the code will be compatible with future releases of .NET, Microsoft’s flagship programming framework. Specifically, Microsoft is encouraging users to move towards .NET Core, an open source version of the framework that allows building software for not only Windows, but also Mac and Linux.
In some ways, the announcement was the end of an era: First launched in 1991 as a reinvention of Microsoft BASIC, coauthored by cofounders Bill Gates and Paul Allen as the company’s first-ever product in 1975, Visual Basic was embraced by novice programmers especially as a user-friendly way to get started. Over the years, it evolved into an entry point for .NET.
“The whole idea behind Visual Basic is that it has always been a great language to get more people into programming,” Scott Hunter, director of program management for Microsoft .NET, told Business Insider. He says that despite its age, Visual Basic still has 700,000 monthly active users — a considerable number, given that the product was officially declared “legacy” in 2008 and the pace of updates slowed.
However, despite its long tenure, Visual Basic isn’t especially well-regarded: Stack Overflow’s annual developer survey, considered an authoritative source on industry trends, named Visual Basic as the “Most Dreaded” programming language for three years in a row. While Visual Basic certainly still has fans, and some businesses do rely on it for their business-critical software, the world has largely moved on.
Hunter says that the reason to officially end new updates for Visual Basic is about helping those developers still using the language to migrate to more modern versions of .NET. The next version of .NET, to be released in November, will actually support code written in Visual Basic.
“Our hope is it’s going to enable Visual Basic fans building with .NET to move to our newer .NET,” Hunter said.
And, in so doing, Hunter says, Microsoft hopes to keep Visual Basic stable and understandable for those relative few who still rely on it. Making Visual Basic compatible with newer versions of languages like Microsoft’s own C# would add complexity that would undermine the entire point.
“If I look at some of the language features we’re adding in C#, they’re complicated. I don’t necessarily want to make Visual Basic complicated. I want it to stay in the spirit of being an easy-to-use language, Hunter said.
A slowly-shifting focus
This all comes at the end of a long period of shifting focus away from Visual Basic. The C# language, first released around the same time as Visual Basic, has only grown in usage, and remains one of the most popular languages out there. In 2017, Microsoft made it official and said that development of C# would continue, but Visual Basic would only get updates in very specific scenarios. Now, even that slower pace of updates has stopped.
With the resources freed up by ending development on Visual Basic, the team will double down on improving .NET Core. Because .NET Core is open source, meaning free to download, use, and modify, it’s seen a tremendous surge of popularity in a few short years, thanks to positive word of mouth.
Similarly, Visual Studio Code— the open source version of Visual Studio, itself the spiritual successor to Visual Basic — has seen tremendous uptick, with developers even at Microsoft competitors like Google adopting it to build their software projects.
Instead of focusing on building new language features for Visual Basic, the team will focus on improving its open source .NET products, meaning they’re free for anyone to use, download, and modify. And since anyone can use it on any platform, it helps usage spread faster, similar to how Microsoft’s code editor quickly picked up popularity among developers.
At the same time, though, Microsoft isn’t ready to kill Visual Basic off entirely just yet, Hunter said. Once .NET adds more compatibility for Visual Basic later this year, it’ll still be one of the easier ways for developers to get their feet wet with a more current way of doing things.
“If you’re learning how to program and learn .NET, we want to keep Visual Basic as an option for that,” Hunter said.
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