My Thoughts on the Classic VB Petition

Posted by Phil Weber on March 17, 2005

Much has been written over the past week regarding a petition asking Microsoft to continue development of “Classic VB.” I have chosen not to sign the petition; here’s why:

First of all, let me emphasize that I am not unsympathetic to the difficult choices faced by those with a large investment in pre-.NET VB code. Some people have built entire companies around products written in VB; the future of that code is quite literally the future of their livelihood. Microsoft has put them in the unenviable position of having to choose whether to leave their code in VB6 and hope that it remains viable, or to rewrite it some other language, which will cost time and money.

If I had been in charge when VB.NET was being designed several years ago, I would certainly have kept those developers in mind, and not broken compatibility with VB6 unless it were absolutely necessary. But wait: Microsoft is full of brilliant people; don’t you think the VB team thought of this? It’s the height of arrogance to believe that we’re aware of considerations that have never occurred to them.

VB.NET is a product of conflicting goals: On one hand, the VB team sought to maintain backward compatibility with VB6. On the other hand, they needed to make VB.NET a first-class .NET citizen, or risk further accusations that it’s a “toy language.” On a third hand, they needed to ship .NET and its key languages as quickly as possible in order to compete with Java and other tools that were nipping at Microsoft’s heels. While there were undoubtedly features the VB.NET team would like to have delivered in version 1.0 (such as edit-and-continue and closer compatibility with VB6), the tight schedule simply didn’t allow it.

How should Microsoft have handled cases in which “the .NET way” and “the VB6 way” were at odds (such as the size of the default integer data type)? The “correct” answer depends upon your point of view; the VB team was damned either way. I’m sure there were many spirited discussions on issues like this one. We may not agree with the final decision, but that doesn’t mean Microsoft didn’t seriously weigh both sides of the issue.

This is one problem I have with the Classic VB petitioners: They focus solely on the goal of VB6 compatibility, while ignoring the perhaps equally important goal of parity with other .NET languages. Any proposal which Microsoft is to take seriously must consider VB’s future, as well as its past.

Another issue: Microsoft doesn’t create development tools out of the goodness of its heart. The business case for tools like Visual Basic and Visual Studio is to drive adoption of Microsoft’s platform du jour. (Remember Steve Ballmer’s “developers, developers, developers” chant?) In the last decade, that platform was Win32, and versions 4 through 6 of VB helped a lot of people create a lot of software for that platform.

Today, the target platform is .NET. Company representatives have stated that Microsoft has “bet the company” on it. But here’s the problem: Some of the Classic VB petitioners — in fact, many of the driving forces behind the petition — have made no secret of the fact that they have little interest in learning or using .NET. They would have Microsoft keep cranking out new versions of COM-based VB for as long as it’s willing to do so. What’s the incentive for Microsoft to spend millions of its dollars and years of its developers’ time, if it won’t help drive adoption of its current platform?

Now, if the petition had said, ‘We want Microsoft to help us migrate our VB6 applications to .NET as easily as we were able to move our code from, say, VB3 to VB4,’ I would have signed in a heartbeat. Classic VB developers could preserve their code assets, and Microsoft would get potentially millions of additional developers creating .NET applications. Everybody wins.

Of course, nothing prevents the Classic VB petitioners from working on their own compiler/conversion tool/compatibility library to ease migration of VB6 code to .NET. This would be an ideal project for the 2,000+ signers of the petition, and I have repeatedly suggested and offered to contribute to such a project. I have also pointed out that the source code for two “nearly-VB” .NET compilers is readily available. If you’re interested in contributing to such a project, please post a comment below.


Posted by Greg on March 17, 2005:

Well said, Phil. The key phrase: “It’s the height of arrogance to believe that we’re aware of considerations that have never occurred to them.”

Posted by Rob Abbe on March 21, 2005:

In my opinion, the best way for MS to handle VB would have been to continue VB classic as a forms based rich client package and promote C# and .Net as a new platform for Windows and Web based development. There should have been no VB.Net.

C# and VB are so close in structure that it makes little sense to have support for more than one of them.

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