Tuesday, September 12, 2023

requiem for visual basic

Hacker News had an interesting Why Did Visual Basic Die? thread.

The highest rated response is a link to this great history of Visual Basic - fascinating to hear the history of how it started as a form designer, with the BASIC bit as a johnny-come-lately add-on. (Also interesting to think of the VB relative to the Mac's HyperCard.... it probably says a lot about the Mac vs Windows communities.)

I picked up Visual Basic on my own during college - it was a world easier than the 16-bit "Charles Petzold book" programming I had been doing for the oncampus software studio - and I designed and taught a for-credit course in it, via Tufts University's "Experimental College". 

I had two main paths leading from VB:

One was "professional", making utilities and leaning on its famous form designer. On the one hand, you couldn't do THAT much with the designer, mostly you just laid out controls at fixed sizes and locations, and everything just looked like a big old dialog. But counterpoint: only now are even professional designer tools such as Figma really incorporating thinking about responsive design and lots of resolution variation. And VB really was an egalitarian tool in many respects. Or I think about small companies that could make a living pulling together some VB forms and a database to right custom apps for other small businesses.

Second was "recreational" - ignoring the controls and just using it it to provide a big old window to draw graphics directly on, to make up a game or toy. (You can still see a few things I made in it at my old Alien Bill Productions Toys for Windows page.) This was a continuation of the fun I had on the old 8-bits (Atari 800XL, Commodore 64) and which I later continued with Java Processing and then onto P5.js (And my toys.alienbill.com site has the fruit of those efforts.)

Microsoft famously bungled the pivot to the web-centric world, and VB was one of the most prominent casualties. From that point of view you see a move from the big servers of the 60s and 70s to the desktop of the 80s and 90s, and then back... I'm not sure what happened to the hobbyist vibe - you could do some stuff in Python locally, but I suppose for server stuff you were back into PHP, which meant you had to find appropriate webhosts, so the barrier to entry was a bit higher...

Anyway, Visual Basic was a fun and empowering piece of software.

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