How are students learning programming in a post-Basic world?

Basic is (mostly) dead. Long live Python as the next starter language?

For years, the lingua franca for desktop computers was the Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, a.k.a. Basic. Essentially every PC had it, and just about anyone could learn to program with it, even in a rudimentary way.

Those days are gone -- Microsoft stopped including Basic with its operating system after Windows 95, a corporate spokesperson confirms. Consequently, today's desktop computers have no built-in general-purpose programming language to entice the curious.

True, Windows 7 includes PowerShell, a scripting language, and Mac OS X comes equipped with AppleScript and command-line access to Unix (on which OS X is based). But there's no one lingua franca across the entire community of personal computer users to serve as a default starter language (although you can still acquire a few forms of Basic, some of which are listed in the sidebar "Free Starter Languages," at right).

Some mourn Basic's passing, others are pleased that it is gone, and still others are nominating replacements.

Why Basic mattered

Chief among the mourners has been tech pundit and science fiction author David Brin, who decried Basic's passing in a widely cited article, "Why Johnny Can't Code," which appeared on Salon.com in September 2006.

"I have never received as much hate mail as I got for that article, not even for my infamous attacks on Star Wars," Brin recalled recently. "It was almost entirely from people who missed the point, with all the rage directed at Basic. Let me be clear that I am not defending Basic. It was a primitive line-coding program, but everyone had it. Textbooks had exercises written in Basic, and teachers could count on a large fraction of their students being able to perform those assignments."

David Brin
"I am not defending Basic," says writer David Brin, who talked about the death of the programming language in a 2006 Salon.com article. "It was a primitive line-coding program, but everyone had it."

Today, the top one-tenth of one percent of students "will go to summer camp and learn programming, but the rest may never know that the dots comprising their screens are positioned by logic, math and human-written code," Brin complains.

Brin claims he has had three separate opportunities to ask different Microsoft executives about the passing of Basic. "I described how my son's math textbooks contained exercises in Basic, but we could not do the problems until we bought an old Commodore 64 online. The response of all three was nearly identical: 'There are still Basic programs in textbooks? Well, don't worry, they'll go away.'"

When asked about the issue for this article, a Microsoft spokesperson cited the continued availability of Visual Basic 2010 Express. Offered as a free download, Visual Basic 2010 Express is the only version of Basic that the company now ships. At one point, Microsoft had been pushing the Kid's Programming Language, but the status of that project is unclear.

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