Update: Users push Microsoft to extend VB6 support

The move aims to help users find data on their systems

Hundreds of users with heavy investments in Visual Basic 6 code have urged Microsoft Corp. to reconsider its 3-year-old decision to end mainstream support for the development environment at the end of the month.

More than 2,000 IT professionals and developers—including over 200 "Most Valuable Professionals," whom Microsoft has honored for their contributions to online and off-line technical communities—signed an online petition calling on the vendor to continue support for the core Visual Basic language for an unspecified period.

The petition also asks Microsoft to further develop VB6 and the Visual Basic for Applications companion tool and suggests that Microsoft include an updated version with its Visual Studio development suite.

"There's nothing so far that I've run into that I can't do with VB6. So there's no incentive to go anywhere else," said Morgan Haueisen, a principal engineer at the Royston, Ga.-based consumer products division of Johnson & Johnson.

Haueisen, who signed the petition, said his division "couldn't live without" 15 VB6 applications that have an average of 44,000 lines of code apiece. Haueisen said he tried to convert a simple application to Microsoft's newer VB.Net environment, but despite hours of work, he wasn't able to get it to run because VB6 and VB.Net have some differing functions and he couldn't find the comparable functions in VB.Net.

Migrating the applications would take "a major, major amount of time," Haueisen said. "You'd have to start doing all that over again, and that's just not feasible."

Two of 30 VB users who responded to an e-mail poll conducted by Computerworld last week reported easy conversions from VB6 to VB.Net using automated tools. But a user at one large bank said the conversion of 12 to 15 applications was difficult, and another 20 users said they either have converted only a small number of applications with difficulty or have not migrated their VB6 applications. Many cited the time and expense that likely would be required.

An IT architect at a manufacturer who asked not to be identified said his company has been slowly migrating applications for two years. The effort can be so difficult that the company's developers sometimes find it's easier to just rewrite the code, he said.

"VB6 is becoming the Cobol of the client-server world. It's going away, but very slowly," said James Brockman, a long-time VB developer who is vice chairman of the Jefferson City, Mo.-based Windows Developers Group.

Microsoft, which released VB6 in 1998, notified customers nearly three years ago that the mainstream support phase would end on March 31. Paid support options will be available for the next three years, and Microsoft will continue to provide security patches for the VB6 runtime free of charge, said Jay Roxe, a Visual Basic product manager.

Microsoft has no plans to "reopen a very old code base" and update it for modern development tasks, Roxe added. He said VB.Net gives users many benefits, including full object-oriented programming and improved ASP.Net technology for building Web sites.

But some companies don't require those improvements for all of their development work. Robert Trende, vice president of systems development at MasterCard International Inc. in Purchase, N.Y., said MasterCard's internal business-parameter management system uses VB6 on the client side of the application.

"VB6 development is cost-effective and requires far less testing than Java and VB.Net," he said. "It isn't the right tool for every application, but it is still practical for many internal system applications."

SteelFab Inc. continues to use VB6 for small applications to manipulate text and move it to Office documents. "Why port [the applications] to a new language when they work fine as they are?" said Jeff Brazzell, who works in IT support at the Charlotte, N.C.-based steel maker.

Mark Driver, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said most new Visual Basic applications are being developed with VB.Net, but he estimated that between 30% and 40% of Visual Basic developers still use VB6.

Christopher Flores, a group product manager for Visual Studio at Microsoft, said decisions to migrate VB6 code to VB.Net depend on the application and the user's goals. He said some VB6 applications work fine as they are, with no need to migrate; meanwhile, some users migrate tiers of an application at any given time.

"VB6 and VB.Net can co-exist very peacefully. They're highly interoperable," Flores said. "There are many cases where we have VB6 developers actually calling .Net code from VB6 and vice versa. So it's really not an all-or-none proposition."

Flores said the signers of the VB petition represent a "small but very vocal minority" of the millions of VB developers. But he said Microsoft takes user concerns seriously and plans to continue to be aggressive with the type and quantity of training materials it makes available. He noted that there is also a wealth of resources available through the large VB community.

Several VB users expressed sympathy for Microsoft's position.

"Too much complexity and splitting resources in too many directions leads to poor execution," said Jeremy Lehman, CIO at New York-based Thomson Financial. "We want the best VB.Net and C# possible, not perpetual hand-holding."

"I don't think it's fair from a technology standpoint to expect an aging platform to be supported forever," said Christopher Pesola, associate director of application services at Learning Care Group Inc. in Novi, Mich. "This should be seen as a good opportunity to move on." He added, though, that he would like the tool for migrating from VB6 to VB.Net to be "a little more robust and user-friendly."

Carl Zetie, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., said it has proven much harder to upgrade a VB6 project to VB.Net than anticipated. "When VB.Net was first introduced, everybody focused on the skills issue. They figured the biggest barrier would be to learn the object-oriented methods," he said. "The biggest barrier turned out to be converting the applications rather than converting the programmers."

Zetie said many of his clients have given up trying to migrate complex applications from VB6 to VB.Net because of the effort and risk. Instead, they maintain existing applications in Microsoft's Component Object Model (COM), do new development in .Net and interoperate between the two environments, he said.

"It works," Zetie said, "but it's extra effort."

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Upgrade Assistance

Microsoft said the upcoming Visual Studio 2005 includes these new features to help VB6 users get up to speed more quickly:

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MY NAMESPACE, which provides shortcuts to the most commonly used .Net classes.

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AN AUTOCORRECT feature that offers suggested fixes for 229 compiler errors.

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INTELLISENSE CODE SNIPPETS, which let developers insert commonly used code from a “smart clipboard.”

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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