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NewTech Viewpoints

Analysis: VB History Provides Guidance for IT Managers, Developers

Related Articles: Release History for Visual Basic

The VB3/VB4/Windows 95 pattern will likely repeat with VB6, VB.NET, and XP

Position: NewTech believes developers probably have time to spare for .NET preparation, since adoption rates of .NET operating systems by mainstream corporate buyers, a necessary ingredient of .NET success, will initially be slower than planned.

Prediction: VB6 is destined for what may be the longest lifespan of any version in the history of the tool. But developers that do not plan for a skills update no later than 3Q2002 will find themselves at a distinct disadvantage.


The current debate about the likely penetration rate of .NET into the mainstream developer community is a lively one. As this is written, the .NET announcement is about one year old, and only now are we seeing release candidates and bona fide tools emerging, to begin truly evaluating .NET development

The big question is, when will the .NET train leave the station? For a clue, look to recent history. The release history of VB4 and its dependency on a 32-bit operating systems provides the clue.

That Was Then, This is Now

When VB4 was released, it had new object-oriented features such as class modules, property procedures, an object browser, and more. It was a radical departure from VB3, and a whole new ball game. At that time, the community of VB3 developers was quite large, and VB3 was a mature, stable product.

VB4 came in three flavors: 16 bit (for the old Windows 3.1 that everyone was using at that time), and 32 bit for Windows 95 and 32 bit for Windows NT. When VB4 was released, it took some time, but the developer community wised up fast about the deficiencies of VB4 16 bit. Quite simply, if you were staying in 16 bit Windows, you were staying with VB3. The VB4 16-bit edition was not robust. So, if you were going VB4, you were using the 32-bit version ONLY.

Since most corporations were slow to move to Windows 95 and unable to use VB4 32-bit, this had the effect of lengthening the life of VB3. To this day, some shops still keep VB3 apps alive.

The link between the VB4 32-bit and Windows 95 at that time had the opposite effect with VB4 adoption rates overall. VB4 did not take the market by storm, because corporations were sticking with Windows3.1—and VB3. VB4 caught on slowly, and even then, only to the extent upgrades to 32-bit Windows 95 operating systems were taking place. Much of this was dependent on budgets, since upgrading Windows has significant total costs, much more than the license itself. There’s training, recertifications, rollout, and support costs. Windows 95 introduced the registry, an important new OS feature that was integral to the way new COM-based, distributed applications were built. This feature took some time for developers to really understand and leverage.

The Similarities

There are distinct similarities to that history and the current scenario. Today, we have a very mature, stable VB6 product, and an army of developers very comfortable with the product. We have a new version of VB called VB.NET, and this new version is totally dependent on .NET-enabled operating systems; namely, Windows 2000 and Windows 2000 and XP. Windows 2000 and XP have many new .NET features that are integral to the way new XML/SOAP/.NET applications are built. All of this is similar to the situation in 1996-1997.

The new VB.NET is really a radical departure from tried-and-true VB6. VB.NET is wired to Windows 2000 and XP. And like the VB4 story, even if developers are jazzed about the product, they need someone to write a check to set it all up over the new operating system and underlying development platform.

Back in 1997, Windows 3.1 was a mature product, and corporations were familiar with supporting its use. Today, the same is true regarding NT4. Microsoft has added many service packs to NT4, which have greatly extended its lifespan.

The Differences

There are major differences between VB6/VB.NET/XP and the VB3/VB4/Windows 95 scenario. The economy in 1996-1997 was on a tear, sprinting along with the steadily rising market for equities. What we have today is an economic downturn. This does not bode well for Windows upgrade adoption rates. Another major difference is the fact that developers must now contend with not two, but three operating systems: NT4, Windows 2000, and XP. For developers, parts of this are a major cramp, because Globally Unique Identifiers (GUIDs) and Programmatic Identifiers (ProgIDs) associated with COM objects must be edited for applications to migrate in some cases. This makes the actual work of migrating much more involved overall. As such, these added developer tasks actually work against speedy migration from NT4 to .NET-enabled Windows operating systems. Migration details like this will start to emerge as organizations actually migrate to the .NET programming model.

What to Do Next

.NET is based on XML and specifically Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) app-to-app communication. SOAP-based communication is possible today using NT4, VB6, and the SOAP2.0 toolkit. In other words, organizations can gain many of the benefits of XML and the SOAP protocols today, without migrating. This tactic is almost mandatory for any new application development, to position for the ultimate migration to .NET. Since .NET is fundamentally a new programming model, any apps built to the old COM-based model will require an expensive rewrite to exploit the best that .NET has to offer. Using the SOAP Toolkit today is a solid tactic for positioning your new application development for the future.

In Summary

Real momentum in .NET application development cannot begin until the migration to .NET operating systems is complete. Even after this event occurs, there are major costs in retraining developers, migrating old-paradigm code to .NET, and handling multi-OS support and migration issues. These dynamics guarantee that VB6 will have a very long life, possibly past 4Q2003.

Prediction #1: Most organizations will wait and see, while noting the experiences of early-adopter organizations regarding migration to .NET. This will have the effect of extending the life of VB6 developers and their applications through at least 1Q2003.

Prediction #2: The complex IT planning environment and weak economy will pause many nonessential development projects. Those apps that are budgeted must address future migration towards the .NET platform to avoid building in high migration costs later. This will have the effect of changing the way applications are built with current tools. Through 4Q2002, Microsoft will be under pressure from corporate IT shops to provide interim, robust VB6/NT4-based tools similar to the SOAP2.0 toolkit, to ease the ultimate path to .NET migration.

Prediction #3: We will see Windows 2000 and XP adoption well in advance of actual utilization of the .NET programming model for actual development. This phased approach is probable in the light of the total costs associated with cutting over completely to the .NET programming model. This will have the effect of delaying the adoption of .NET for application development and extending the life of current programming practices and tools.

Prediction #4: The weak economy will slow adoption rates and serve to dampen mainstream buy interest in .NET development before 3Q2002, or until the economy provides the backdrop necessary for a fresh round of IT capital spending.

Related Articles: Release History for Visual Basic

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