Microsoft's Visual Basic upgrade cleans up syntax, coding errors

Version 14 of nearly 24-year-old language features enhancements for catching errors, but it's unlikely to draw new developers

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Visual Basic, originally released by Microsoft in early 1991, may seem a bit long in the tooth compared to newer languages like Java, PHP, or Apple's six-month-old Swift. But it still has a following, and Microsoft mapped out a list of improvements this week.

Version 14, timed to ship with the planned Visual Studio 2015 software development platform, features the themes of making common coding patterns cleaner, with "easy-to-grasp" syntax, and fixing up "irritating corners" of the language, says Lucian Wischik, program manager for Microsoft's Visual Basic team, in a blog post this week.

"This release will be easier to digest than was Visual Basic 12, with its introduction of async," he says. "The version number of Visual Basic has gone straight from 12 to 14, skipping 13. We did this to keep in line with the version numbering of Visual Studio itself." Visual Studio 2015 currently is in a preview mode; general availability could happen next spring.

The upgrade includes a new ?. operator, providing an easier way to check for whether an element is null. "It's useful because production-quality code is typically littered with hundreds of null-checks all over the place, and ?. will make them all easier to read," Wischik says.

A NameOf operator, which helps catch errors in strings, also is featured, as are multiline strings. "You used to have to use cumbersome workarounds to get multiline strings in VB," says Wischik. "Thankfully, VB14 now supports multiline strings literals directly." Visual Basic 14 simplifies writing Readonly auto-properties, and comments are handled better in statements split over multiple lines. String interpolation will be added, although it is not yet in the Visual Studio 2015 preview.

Visual Basic 14 features the open source Roslyn compiler technology. The VB team, meanwhile, is taking public comments into consideration in designing the language, Wischik says.

The language remains especially popular in business software development for building smaller applications, says Paul Jansen, manager director at Tiobe Software, which tracks language popularity via its monthly index. Visual Basic is relatively easy to learn, offers easy integration with Access databases, and is used in development of GUIs, he said. "There are indeed still developers using Visual Basic," says Jansen.

There are limits, however, he adds. "As soon as applications become bigger than 100,000 lines of code, Visual Basic is not the way to go any more because of its lack of scalability."

Analyst Rob Sanfilippo, of Directions on Microsoft, sees Visual Basic still with a following, although it is likely eroding. "It's unlikely that Visual Basic is attracting new developers who don't have a history using the language or an existing Visual Basic code base. The logical choice for .Net development is C#." New features in Visual Basic 14 "may help some current Visual Basic developers, but they are not geared at gaining a new audience," he says.

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