Brief reflections on 50 years of BASIC

Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Code (BASIC) has turned fifty, as reported on The Reg and by Jack Schofield on ZDNet. A great moment in computer history, or would we have been better off without it?

My first computer (a Commodore PET) ran Basic from ROM, and without it you could do nothing, though developers bypassed it by using the POKE command to write low-level instructions into memory. The language is meant to be forgiving (as far as a computer language can be) and English-like, at the expense of being a little more verbose. It is case-insensitive and does not require braces or semi-colons to indicate blocks or lines of code, which makes programming look less intimidating for beginners.

I graduated onto an Atari ST, for which there was an excellent Basic implementation called GFA Basic, fast and capable. This was great for writing utilities, though, though serious programming tended to use one of several strong C compilers: Lattice C, Mark Williams C, HiSoft C come to mind.

Basic also had a role, even on the ST, as a macro language for applications. For example, the Superbase database manager used a version of Basic.

The company most strongly associated with Basic though is Microsoft. A version of Basic came with MS-DOS.

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Microsoft also supported Basic for professional development. Microsoft Basic Professional Development System 7.x was a well-regarded development tool for business applications, though commercial shrink-wrap software tended to be written in C or C++.

That trend followed through to the Windows graphical environment. Visual Basic (VB), which made it easy to code Windows applications, was perhaps the most significant Basic release in terms of its impact, especially when it reached version 3.0 with full database support. Its popularity was such that many developers felt wounded when Microsoft discontinued Visual Basic 6.0, a direct successor, in favour of Visual Basic .NET which is something incompatible and different.

Further, VB 6.0 or something very like it lives on today, in the form of Visual Basic for Applications as found in all recent versions of Microsoft Office.

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Despite this, Basic is in decline. Most of the professional developers I meet at events like Build use C# in preference to Visual Basic, there being little reason not to. C# is the premier language of .NET, and Visual Basic gets in the way if you want to keep up with latest .NET developments. Xamarin, which lets you code in .NET for iOS and Android, supports C# but not Visual Basic. Once you come to terms with semi-colons, braces and case-sensitivity, there is no real advantage to Visual Basic and C# is no more difficult.

I do see Visual Basic still used in education though, as well as by some developers who either prefer the language or are so used to it that they see no need to change; and to be fair, Xamarin aside, there is little if anything you can do in C# that you cannot also do in VB and the output is more or less the same.

The Roslyn project, which will be part of the next version of C# and probably in the next release of Visual Studio, lets you paste C# code as VB and vice versa.

Nevertheless, I believe we will see further decline in Basic usage, especially as it is little used outside Microsoft’s platform.

Would it have been better if Microsoft has not adopted Basic so wholeheartedly? There are some problems with Basic, though it is possible to write excellent code in Basic just as you can write poor code in C#, Python, C, or other more fashionable languages. Some issues:

  • Early versions of Basic encouraged badly structured programming with keywords like GOTO and GOSUB resulting in intricate loops that were hard to follow or debug.
  • Basic abstracts how software works to such an extent that you do not learn some important programming concepts such as pointers, addresses, memory allocation.
  • There is no natural progression from Basic to the C-like languages which dominate computing (C,C++,JavaScript,C#).
  • Visual Basic encourages developers to mix GUI code and business logic in the same files, as well as building user interfaces that tend not to scale well.
  • Small and declining professional use means that Basic is less useful than many other languages in the job market.

That said, Basic powers many excellent business applications as well as introducing many to the wonders of programming, and deserves our respect.

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2 comments to Brief reflections on 50 years of BASIC

  • I think as you mentioned the focus of late is cross platform so 20 years ago when nearly everyone was developing for windows BASIC seemed a natural choice, and if you were a child of the 80s a natural progression from the home computers that all came shipped with it (apart from the curious jupiter ace!)

    That said it still exists as a friendlier way to approach programming on certain platforms. For example basic4android is just that, a very capable tool that lets you generate Java APKs using Basic. Then theres GLBasic which offers cross platform game environment. As does Blitz Basic and its off shoot monkey which is a kind of hybrid BASIC/C type language.

    Gary

  • Joe

    While I mastered C (and PASCAL) 15 years ago, I still do just for fun programming in modern structured and object-oriented BASIC dialects. It gives quick and satisfying results without getting much into debugging. I’m not a professional software developer and I don’t have a career in the IT industry, so maintainable code is not a strict requirement for a hobbyist like me.

    Also BASIC code is so different from C code, that I don’t confuse it with all the C-lookalikes. (Who had the idea making a programming language look like C makes it easier to learn for a C programmer?)

    Of course I could invest time into learning all these fashionable over-complex languages like C++, Python, Ruby, but from my POV it’s more rewarding and fun to get actual small-scaled projects done. Ironically my BASIC knowledge from the 90s is the only one, which isn’t completely outdated and useless today. Of course, C is still useful for low-level programming and I’m able to do that, but that isn’t enjoyable and I don’t get paid for it. I also got more fun out of COBOL and Fortran than trying out Java.