Microsoft Readies Visual Basic for the Web

The world's 3.2 million Visual Basic developers recently were treated to some enticing tidbits of news from Steve Ballmer, president and CEO of Microsoft Corp. (www.microsoft.com). Ballmer, speaking to VB developers assembled for a summit held in conjunction with the recent Windows 2000 launch, unveiled the next generation of VB tools. And for all intents and purposes, it is a Web development environment. The new toolset -- which has not been formally named, but is referred to as Visual Studio 7.0 -- includes COM+ and XML support, and has the ability to generate HTML pages that separate the user interface from application source code.

Visual Basic will be heavily geared toward Microsoft's DNA and XML strategies, which are efforts to leverage Internet connectivity. "Think of Visual Studio 7.0 as the first major step after Windows 2000 down this path," Ballmer said. Visual Studio 7.0 is scheduled to ship by the end of the year, according to Microsoft's CEO.

The new initiative will help move Microsoft's Internet and DNA strategy forward, says Warren Wilson, analyst at Summit Strategies (www.summitstrats.com). While a Web-enabled version of Visual Basic has been long overdue, the lack of Web capabilities probably hasn't hurt Microsoft's market presence among the developer community, he adds. "VB is still a very popular and powerful tool, but its Web-enablement has been a long time in coming," Wilson says. "Developers are very eager for a Web-enabled version, and they need it."

While Visual Studio will support the building of enterprise-scale applications on large servers, the ultimate goal is increased performance through software, not hardware, Ballmer said at the conference. "In the long run, the real answer to both scalability and availability isn't just bigger hardware. It's software scale. It's making it easy to write applications that can actually live on a number of different boxes." This means being able to "build a Web site with 200 inexpensive PC servers in it, but all nicely and easily managed centrally, and with better and more continuous scalability than you would get by buying one big, honking expensive Sun box or one big expensive box running NT from somebody like Unisys. We'll support both the scale-up and scale-out approach."

Ballmer outlined the Microsoft vision for Next Generation Windows Services, highlighting the Windows 2000 operating system, the cornerstone of Windows DNA 2000, and announcing key features for Visual Studio 7.0: Web Services, ASP+ Web Forms, and language innovations for Visual Basic.

This next version of VB is "essentially a ground-up overhaul with the DNA architecture embedded deeply into it," Wilson says. "Microsoft realizes that the clock is ticking, and that they've got to move quickly on the Web. But they also want to use VB as a way to cement their importance to developers over the long haul, and make it an integral piece of that."

Visual Studio is configured to enable developers to create Web services that directly link applications, services, and devices with one another over the Internet using HTTP, XML, and SOAP -- an XML-based standard for cross-platform object invocation. Any third party will be able to call and use Web-based services, Ballmer said. "We will see more and more of this kind of development," he explains. "The people that added third-party libraries in the past will add third-party services to the array of things that you as VB programmers can use out on the Internet." Microsoft will "host a number of these services and build a number of these services ourselves," he added. Developers on any platform can reuse Web services in their Web applications regardless of the hardware and software running the Web service.

Another new feature, ASP+ Web Forms, is based on XML and COM+. The drag-and-drop environment uses the RAD model, through which developers will be able to quickly build HTML-based forms that are rendered on the Web server in the same way that they build an application for Windows with Visual Basic today. The next generation of Visual Basic will be further enhanced with object-oriented language features. Key feature updates include free-threading, increasing scalability by enabling concurrent processing of components on the Web; inheritance, improving reuse by allowing the creation of base classes that can be inherited; and structured exception handling, creating greater reliability and manageability by centralizing error-handling code.