VS 2005: Enough to Coax VB Crowd Over?

ORLANDO, Fla. — Even BJ Holtgrewe, a senior member of Microsoft’s developer team, says he resisted upgrading from the Visual Basic programming language to the first VB.NET release when it was launched a few years back.

Eventually, he bit the bullet and upgraded his skills to the new programming features for building user interfaces.

His experience echoes the concerns of Microsoft officials as they look for ways to coax holdout developers to transition from Visual Basic 6 to VB.NET and its Visual Studio 2005 platform.

Now that Microsoft has said it will deliver SQL Server 2005, Visual Studio 2005 and BizTalk Server 2006 the week of Nov. 7, the company is pulling out the stops to coax developers over to the next-generation platform before the official release.

But they face a foot-dragging group within the VB community.

For example, a study by Evans Data in 2004 found that developers in Europe, Middle East and African regions were resisting switching to the next-generation tools platform. Many cited a steep learning curve, but most said some application components from VB just don’t translate.

“They do need to rewrite code in some of their older applications,” said Andrés Agular, program manager for software tools provider ARTech. “It can be very expensive.”

That’s one reason Microsoft is investing in ways to transition to the Visual Studio 2005 platform, companies attending Microsoft’s TechEd conference here said.

For some companies, however, the gap between VB then and VB.NET now is a business opportunity to chase.

Take the Chicago-based ARTech’s DeKlarit development tool, which provides a model-driven platform that helps developers bring business applications over to the .NET platform.

The DeKlarit 4.0 beta, just released, enables Visual Studio 2005 developers to concurrently generate and maintain data models, data access and business logic layers of their .NET framework-based applications. Call it a kind of bridge from the Visual Basic world to Visual Studio. The company would say it provides a simple way to design database applications using plain business knowledge.

Because data-access features in Visual Basic applications are disconnected in the .NET platform, the DeKlarit tool makes it easier for the applications to switch over to the .NET platform.

“You start by defining entities, such as business processes, and based on those inputs, it creates a data model and creates a framework code for application programming interfaces , for example,” Agular said.

ARTech also partners with tool makers such as Infragistics — another company chasing opportunities bridging developers to the new platform — in order to capture knowledge of the developers’ applications. Working with Infragistics’ presentation layer tools, the DeKlarit platform helps suss out which data should be in the application’s presentation layer in order to use those components more effectively.

“Business application developers need deep knowledge of their business applications,” he added. “But they don’t need to add in new programming skills on top of that. We take care of that part.”

Then there are loads of VB-esque features in Visual Studio that could help developers give up the VB ghost.

“The soul of Visual Basic is back in this version,” Jay Roxe, product manager in Microsoft’s developer division, told internetnews.com.

For example, the Edit and Continue function, which Visual Basic developers screamed about when it didn’t appear in later versions, is back, as Microsoft previously announced.

“Visual Basic has always had a background compiler, which would let you know when something was not written correctly,” Roxe explained. Microsoft has taken it beyond that with an auto correct feature, sort of like the spelling-correction function in Microsoft Word, that displays a dialog box with three suggestions on how to fix the code.

As for the time and expense of rewriting VB applications in Visual Studio, Roxe said one of the things Microsoft emphasizes with .NET is the interoperability component.

Take the Reg-Free COM features, which help isolate existing COM components and ActiveX controls using Visual Studio 2005. Although the technique has its limits, it does wrap a Visual Basic component into the .NET framework, which helps developers re-use their VB code.

“We came out strong with code migration,” Roxe continued. “Turns out that when we worked with customers, we saw they were migrating skills first. They are maintaining code in VB6 but doing new development in VB.NET. So they’re getting the experience with VB.NET, and once they understand what .NET can do, they see the business proposition of what they can use from their old code.”

After all, he added, they know their own code enough to say whether this piece or that piece would benefit from a rewrite on the newer platform.

Another bone to developers is the shorter MyNameSpace feature. Roxe called it a kind of “speed dial into the .NET framework” because it consists of one line of code in Visual Studio, compared to the many different lines in VB.

In addition, code snippet features help developers write new functions once and reuse that code again, a key best-practices feature of software engineering.

Tom Rizzo, a director with Microsoft’s SQL Server division, also said Microsoft has written Visual Basic features and code into the upcoming SQL Server 2005 release, giving developers more flexibility in how they develop against the database application.

“All the new functions will help, whether they’re writing in C# , Visual Basic or ASP.NET ,” he said.

Because SQL Server and Visual Studio 2005 are so integrated in the next release, “they have to ship together. This is going to be our platform for the next 10 years. We’ll continue to refine that integration, which takes advantage of developer technology [in Visual Studio] and database technology [in SQL Server],” as well as integration of those business process with the BizTalk Server 2006 release.

Roxe said there have been a lot of things that VB developers wanted to see [in the latest platform].

“VB was always about making development easy. You do the thinking about the business problem, the tools work with you on the development challenge,” he said.

“So we think people will start saying ‘this is my VB. This is what I expect to see in my development environment.'”

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