Canadian developers debate the end of Visual Basic 6

When Rob Windsor convenes the next meeting of TVBUG on Wednesday evening, he may have a fight on his hands.

This will be the first Toronto Visual Basic User Group meeting since a petition to save Visual Basic 6 began to circulate on the Internet. Microsoft is due to end full support for the development tool at the end of the month. Since it was posted on March 8, 2,061 people have signed the petition, including 217 Microsoft MVPs (the “most valuable professional” designation is given to active Microsoft community members who use the company’s products).

Windsor, who is TVBUG’s president, said he won’t sign the petition, but thinks that others within his group probably have. “In any group there’s going to be people on both sides. It’s the same with the petition. There’s some people I think just got caught in the ‘I don’t want to move to new technology’ thing,” he said.

Windsor doesn’t anticipate it will come to blows when TVBUG meets on Wednesday, but he said people can be possessive about the technology they love.

“Basic has been around for 40 years. People right from high school have grown up with Basic. It’s almost like when Coke came out with New Coke. People didn’t even taste New Coke and said, ‘No, I hate it.’ There’s the emotional aspects to the language as well as the technical aspects,” he said.

Microsoft has pursued a consistent policy of supporting a product for the first seven years of its life, then adding a pay as you go service for the final three years. That should be good enough for most people, said Kate Gregory, a partner at Peterborough, Ont.-based Gregory Consulting Ltd.

“No one’s coming out and uninstalling it off people’s machines or anything,” she said. “If I had bought a copy of any other development product in 1998, it wouldn’t be in extended support today.”

But, like Windsor, she knows people can become attached to a given technology or product. They put training time into it, develop a level of expertise and are reluctant to see it go.

The issue of VB 6 desupport is not a new one, said Windsor. The developer community has been aware for some time that the tool wasn’t going to be around forever. But the looming deadline and subsequent petition gave the debate some new life.

The issue for a lot of developers is not the demise of VB 6 but the adoption of Visual Basic .Net. Each version of Visual Basic from 4 (the 32-bit version) to 6 was not radically different from its predecessor, said Windsor. In other words, you could keep upgrading to new versions without worrying about what would happen to your applications.

But making the move from VB 6 to .Net is a different animal, said Windsor. “Your choices are basically to re-write your existing software or use the interop features of .Net. (The community) has been very vocal about that and they’ve continued to be very vocal for quite some time.”

That change will not sit well with many Canadian developers, said IDC Canada Ltd. analyst David Senf, based in Toronto. He said that 28 per cent of all developers across the country use either VB 6 or VB .Net. IDC doesn’t break out the numbers on the proportion of users on VB 6, but Senf estimates that it’s “still a significant installed base. It’s a non-trivial exercise for them to move their code base.”

Lenny Louis, Microsoft Canada’s .Net developer tools product manager, is aware of the petition and the concerns, but says he doesn’t hear a lot of requests to extend support for VB 6. The company’s larger customers, such as Bank of Montreal, the RCMP and Nortel, have already moved to VB .Net.

“People call for support for two reasons: either they want to know how to do something in Visual Basic or the actual product is not behaving the way it should behave. Seven years into this, we’ve addressed all those issues,” he said.

Help is available through service packs, he said, or from the wide body of knowledge available online through the developer community. Also, the majority of users require the functionality they can find in .Net tools, he said, like building mobile applications.

To some degree, Microsoft has been a victim of its own success. The company has created a product that a percentage of the developer community is loathe to relinquish. Some just want their cake and eat it too, said Senf. They want the Visual Basic they grew up on, but also crave the functionality of .Net.

Dan Artuso is one Canadian who signed the petition. He’s a computer support specialist at the National Research Council of Canada with an affinity for VB 6. “I use it a lot myself,” he said. “I’d like to see it stay around.” But he acknowledges that VB .Net is in many ways a superior product and says that he signed the petition out of developer solidarity as much as anything else.

“There’s always going to be problems with (desupport),” he said. “You’re going to make some people unhappy.”

People may be reluctant to make the transition, said Gregory, but she has successfully walked a number of clients through it.

“Somebody at Microsoft has got have a grin on their face that they made a product that people love so much,” she said. “But the fact is that nobody’s trying to take VB 6 away. They’re just not going to make a VB 7.”

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