Fall of Visual Basic, Rise of QuickBasic?

There was simply no other tool that a developer could use to sketch out a complete user interface and get coding as quickly as VB.

Except Smalltalk on the Xerox Star (1981), ResEdit on Classic Mac (1984), RCS and ORCS on Atari ST (1985), Hypercard (1986), Interface Builder on NeXTstep (1988), and others; Visual Basic came out in 1991, Delphi came out in 1995. Maybe there was no other tool on brain-damaged DOS/Windows systems before VB, I can buy that, but real computers were doing RAD a long time ago.

Alan Cooper, the "father" of Visual Basic, has done some really interesting work with interaction design and user experience, but he didn't invent RAD. VB started life as his project "Tripod", a shell creation tool, basically a user-customizable program launcher or "wizard". Then Microsoft bought it and turned it into "Visual Basic", as a kind of ugly Hypercard (is BASIC a worse language than HyperTalk? Eh.)

VB became famous for a legendary feature called edit-and-continue, which allowed developers to run their programs, find problems, fix them, and then keep going with the new code. This was a sharp difference from almost every other programming environment known to humanity, which force developers to recompile their work and start over after every change.

This is, of course, utterly wrong. Every language with a REPL can do this: You write some code in the REPL, run it, it crashes or produces wrong results, you change the one offending function and resume. All global objects are still present, no recompile necessary.


; (define (hello name) (error 'hello "Unimplemented")) ; (define (greetings) (for-each hello '(Cthulhu YogSothoth ShubNiggurath))) ; (greetings) Error: (hello) Unimplemented ; (define (hello name) (printf "Ia ia, ~A fhtagn!\n" name)) ; (greetings) Ia ia, Cthulhu fhtagn! Ia ia, YogSothoth fhtagn! Ia ia, ShubNiggurath fhtagn!

The one difference is that to save state, you have to copy-paste out of .csi_history or whatever. IDLE lets you save off your session history directly, but you still have to edit it into a working script. VB did have the virtue of staying in the live editor, but you're still just coding behind buttons, you have no access to a history or REPL.

(This is why I dislike DrRacket so much: If you edit code, it does destroy your global REPL state! Why even have a fake-REPL there, man?! Command-line Racket doesn't have this problem, but it's still not a great Scheme.)

Just as VB acquired the same power as C#, C# picked up the same conveniences as Visual Basic. For example, .NET’s type safety and memory management features meant that C# developers never needed to worry about memory leaks, just like VB developers.
In other words, C# now had the guardrails to protect hobbyists, students, and new programmers without surrendering its power. All of a sudden, VB was no longer something special. It was just another tool in a capable programmer’s toolkit.

Every part of that is… well, not correct.

  1. My understanding is VB.NET was a mess interacting with .NET resources, so if you used it you were still stuck in the VB gulag or had to learn so much C# or C you might as well move up.
  2. C# is a hard language to start up in, you would never give it to a newbie and say "good luck!"; although that's what Unity does, and most Unity code is nightmarish as a result.
  3. C# is certainly not "never need to worry about memory leaks"; it's a Java ripoff with more native libraries, many of which have dangerous C++ based memory management, and in any case you can over-retain things and fill up memory very quickly.
  4. No capable programmer is going to say "this project is best in… Visual Basic dot Net!" Except on broadcast TV-for-morons.

The one good thing from all this:

An innovative project called QB64 has created a modern QuickBASIC replica. It runs on Windows, MacOS, and Linux, with no emulator required.

OK, this is interesting. Terrible domain name www.portal.qb64.org though, what is happening there? Just qb64.org redirects to that mess.

Once you run the setup_osx.command, it has a qb64 binary, which opens a DOS-like window with the old DOS qbasic.exe UI. Huh. This isn't bad, though the font is small and the only way to change it is with a custom font. It ships with a cyberbit.ttf font which is pretty but very W I D E.

Writing something and hitting Run|Start dumps an untitled binary in the main directory. Saving (to the programs folder in this package) and then hitting the Run|Output EXE to Source Folder toggle does something more reasonable: hello.bas, hello, hello_start.command. A trivial program is 1186K, which is excessive, but it does work, opens a terminal and shows some text.

There's a ton of sample code in program/samples, including a lot of 3D stuff.

This is a pretty credible BASIC environment.

Pro:

  • Structured BASIC, if you want it.
  • You can just recompile on every platform.

Con:

  • No interactive REPL (that was one of the few things classic line-oriented BASIC, or hybrids like ST BASIC, had going for them).
  • Slow compile.
  • Ugly editor, though probably playing with fonts and colors would improve this.

You'll always be better off just giving a newbie Python, but some people may have old code or nostalgia.

  • Chipmunk BASIC is certainly nicer as an interactive environment, but probably hundreds of times slower.