When Visual Basic was introduced in 1991, Windows 3.0 was a fairly new operating system in need of application and utility software. Although Windows 3.0 itself had proven successful, the graphical applications that offered native support for Windows—and upon whose release the ultimate success or failure of Windows would depend—were slow in coming. The major problem was that C and C++ programmers, who had produced the majority of applications for the MS-DOS operating system, were faced with a substantial learning curve in writing Windows applications and adapting to Windows' event-driven programming model.

The introduction of Visual Basic immediately addressed this problem by offering a programming model that was thoroughly consistent with Windows' graphical nature. Although Windows marked a radical change in the way programs were written, C and C++ programmers continued to produce code as they always had: a text editor was used to write source code, the source code was compiled into an executable, and the executable was finally run under Windows. Visual Basic programmers, on the other hand, worked in a programming environment that its critics derisively labeled a "drawing program." Visual Basic automatically created a form (or window) whenever the developer began a new project. The developer would then "draw" the user interface by dragging and dropping controls from a toolbox onto the form. Finally, the developer would write code snippets that responded to particular events (such as the window loading or the window being resized). In other words, Visual Basic's initial success was due to its ease of use, which in turn reflected that Visual Basic offered a graphical programming environment that was entirely consistent with the graphical character of Windows itself.

To get some sense of the revolutionary character of Visual Basic, it is instructive to compare a simple "Hello World" program for Windows 3.0 written in C with one written in Visual Basic. While the former program is over two pages long, its Visual Basic counterpart takes only three lines of code—and two of them are provided automatically by the Visual Basic environment itself.

Example "Hello World" in C

Example "Hello World" in Visual Basic

While Version 1.0 of Visual Basic was relatively underpowered, Microsoft displayed a firm commitment to Visual Basic and worked very hard to increase its power and flexibility with each new release. By the time Version 3.0 was released, Visual Basic offered a programming paradigm that was completely intuitive, making it easy for novice programmers to get started and produce simple applications very quickly. At the same time, particularly through its ability to access the Windows Application Programming Interface (API) and through its support for add-on controls, Visual Basic had become a programming tool capable of creating applications of considerable sophistication and complexity.

Like VB .NET, Visual Basic Version 4.0, which was released in 1995 to support Microsoft's 32-bit family of operating systems, was a complete rewrite of Visual Basic. It featured limited support for object-oriented programming in the form of class modules (CLS files) and the ability to generate not only Windows executables, but ActiveX DLLs (also known as COM components) as well.

In the periods shortly before and after the release of VB 4, the character of programming changed dramatically. The rise of the Internet as an application platform meant that standalone Windows applications were becoming less and less necessary. The increased prominence of distributed applications that assumed the presence of the Internet marked another change in programming paradigms. Yet, Visual Basic's real strength remained as it always had been: a great platform for developing standalone Windows applications.

This disparity between Visual Basic's strengths and the prevailing programming paradigm, which emphasized distributed applications and the Internet, created something of a contradiction. On the one hand, Visual Basic excelled at graphically depicting the Windows interface. On the other hand, developers were creating fewer and fewer Windows interfaces. Instead, they were now using VisualBasic primarily to write source code that would eventually be compiled into middle-tier components. Ironically, a programming environment whose real strength and point of departure was its graphical character was now being used as a text editor, in very much the same way the first generation of Windows programmers used text editors to create C source code for Windows applications.

Moreover, as the popularity of the Internet grew, it became clearer that Visual Basic was not a particularly good platform for developing Internet applications. With VB 6, Microsoft introduced Web Classes as the preferred technology for Internet application development. Yet, the metaphor presented by Web Classes (which focused on separating a web application's presentation from its programmatic functionality) was confusing to developers, and as a result, Web Classes never became popular. While VB remained critically important for developing middle-tier components for distributed applications, both it and the Visual Basic community that grew up around it remained strangely isolated from the Internet as an application platform.

Numerous detractors have labeled VB .NET as an entirely new language with little relationship to previous versions of Visual Basic?a dubious innovation foisted on the Visual Basic community by Microsoft in an attempt to sell a new version of its development products. However, we don't agree. Instead, we view the introduction of VB .NET as a logical and even necessary step forward in the development of Visual Basic as a premier programming language. The goal of VB .NET is to address the limitations of Visual Basic as a development environment and bring it into the Internet age so that it can remain the major platform for developing applications of all kinds. Very much like Visual Basic 1.0 offered a graphical interface that was suitable for Windows applications, VB .NET and Visual Studio .NET aim at providing a graphical interface that is suitable for developing web applications and for taking full advantage of the Internet as an application-development platform, as well as for developing Windows applications and components.

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