Visual Basic on the decline?

The 3 million programmers using Microsoft's Visual Basic language make up one of the largest and most cohesive developer communities in existence, but some of them now are up for grabs.

The 3 million programmers using Microsoft's Visual Basic language make up one of the largest and most cohesive developer communities in existence, but some of them now are up for grabs.

No one's sure if they will stay in the Microsoft camp and migrate to the two new languages targeting Internet applications that the software giant plans to release late this year.

Their options are growing: Some of the programmers may opt for Sun Microsystems' Java, rather than Microsoft's new Java-like C Sharp (C#). Others are expected to move to Borland Software's Delphi development environment, which contains ease-of-use features on a par with Visual Basic. Borland recently upgraded Delphi in hopes of attracting more Visual Basic developers.

The question of where the software developers go is crucial to Microsoft's future. It has commanded the loyalty of legions of programmers since the advent of the Intel PC, and they have added immeasurable value to the Windows product line. Now, some Visual Basic developers seem to be on the hunt for their next opportunity.

"It's a time of uncertainty, and during times of uncertainty, people will stray," said Jay Pitzer, a Visual Basic programmer and head of the Stingray division at Rogue Wave Software, a component supplier to programmers.

Borland, which estimates there are 1 million Delphi developers, hopes to capitalize on that.

"We're using the Internet as our target development platform," said Michael Swindell, director of product management at Borland. "Delphi 6.0 is probably the biggest step we've taken in many years."

Delphi 6.0, announced last week, already has several Web services built into its graphical environment, so that the details of eXtensible Markup Language, Simple Object Access Protocol and Web Services Description Language are automated for the developer building interactive programs and Web services.

Microsoft plans a similar offering with its upcoming Visual Basic.Net, part of Microsoft's end-of-the-year upgrade to Visual Studio. Meanwhile, the pool of Visual Basic programmers is shrinking, and some have responded critically to the test version of Visual Basic.Net that has been out since November.

"They have changed Visual Basic to make it more like C++, which begs the question: Why don't we just use C++ or Delphi? Or Java?" said Darren Oakley in a message posted to the Visual Basic general discussion newsgroup on the Microsoft site. "I will not be converting to Visual Basic 7 [the .Net version]," he concluded.

There may be others like him. In this spring's Evans Data biannual North American Developer Survey, Visual Basic slipped among programmers using multiple languages, from 62 percent in March 2000 to 46 percent in March 2001.

"Visual Basic seems to be eroding in total number of users and the time spent using it," said Janel Garvin, vice president of research at Evans Data.

Another complaint about .Net is that the test version gave new meanings to key terms in Visual Basic.

Microsoft is struggling to keep its Visual Basic legions from decamping. "We heard developers say they want semantic consistency," said Ari Bixhorn, Visual Basic product manager at Microsoft. The company backed off three semantic changes in April, so developers won't have to keep track of two meanings for the same term. "Those changes will help ease the upgrade. We absolutely expect to maintain the Visual Basic community at 3 million and bring them forward to .Net," Bixhorn said.

In the Evans Data survey, 15 percent of the programmers queried said they plan to go to C# next year, and there was a high overlap between this group and users of Visual Basic, Garvin said. "Some are probably looking into Java," she added. While Visual Basic is declining and C and C++ are flat, Java has been growing among developer preferences, Garvin said. Evans Data collects no feedback on Delphi, since it doesn't qualify as an independent language.

"Overall, the feedback we've gotten is that programmers are extremely happy with Visual," Bixhorn said.