Something Pretty Right: a History of Visual Basic
Visual Basic (or VB) burst onto the scene at a magical, transitional moment, presenting a radically simpler alternative for Windows 3.0 development. Bill Gates’ genuine enthusiasm for VB is evident in an accompanying 1991 video in which BillG personally and playfully demonstrates Visual Basic 1.0 at its launch event, as well as in a 1994 video in which Gates thanks Alan Cooper, the
“Father of Visual Basic,” with the Windows Pioneer Award.
For Gates, VB was love at first sight. “It blew his mind, he had never seen anything like it,” recalls Cooper of Gates’s reaction to his 1988 demo of a prototype. “At one point he turned to his retinue and asked ‘Why can’t we do stuff like this?'” Gates even came up with the idea of taking Cooper’s visual programming frontend and replacing its small custom internal language with BASIC.
After seeing what Microsoft had done to his baby, Cooper reportedly sat frustrated in the front row at the launch event. But it’s hard to argue with success, and Cooper eventually came to appreciate VB’s impact. “Had Ruby [Cooper’s creation] gone to the market as a shell construction set,” Cooper said, “it would have made millions of people happier, but then Visual Basic made hundreds of millions of people happier. I was not right, or rather, I was right enough, had a modicum of rightness. Same for Bill Gates, but the two of us together did something pretty right.”
At its peak, Visual Basic had nearly 3.5 million developers worldwide. Many of the innovations that Alan Cooper and Scott Ferguson’s teams introduced 30 years ago with VB are nowhere to be found in modern development, fueling a nostalgic fondness for the ease and magic VB delivered that we have yet to rekindle.
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