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What is the History of VB?
Where did Visual Basic come from?

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

Many people do not remember just a decade or so ago when MS did not write Applications, but was a language and OS company. A few short years before a cushy IBM deal, Microsoft only made languages. I remember -- I was around for all of this.

Apple (Steve Jobs) knew that the Mac needed Software to be commercially viable, and Jobs learned that Microsoft was trying to break in to the Application market. In 1982 (or so) Apple came to MS with an offer -- Apple was making a cool new computer (called the Macintosh) and wanted some Developers to write Applications for it. If MS was going to try to break into the Application Market then the Mac was the perfect opportunity to do so. Gates loved the idea, and was very excited about Macs.

Microsoft created Word, Excel and File for the Mac and then later (much), ported them back to the PC. This became the foundation of MS's Application empire -- all enabled because of the Mac. Most PC people do not know where their beloved Apps came from -- many are Mac Ports (with a lot of time and changes under their belt).

Then about 2 years later (1984), just as the Mac was about to be released, Gates decided that his Applications were needed for the Mac, and that he was going to use a little muscle. He threatened Jobs and Apple that he would pull those Applications and never release them if Apple didn't license some of the MacUI for MS-Applications on the PC. This Application suite later grew into Windows 1.0 and so on. Because Apple had licensed some concepts to Microsoft (under coercion), it weakened their case later against MS when MS started more blatantly ripping off the Mac. This is the largest single factor why Apple lost their lawsuit with MS. Years later there were other legal decisions made on look and feel -- but the Apple-MS lawsuit was settled years before those cases.


Apple (Donn Denman) had been working on a Basic Language for the Mac -- appropriately named "MacBasic". The Mac was designed with Object Oriented design concepts and Pascal. The Lisa (the forerunner to the Mac) was designed around Pascal and had an Object Oriented Framework called "Clascal" that later grew and migrated into Object Pascal and MacApp Framework (done 10+ years before Microsofts' MFC -- but that's a different story). Apple was so inspired that they worked with Nicholas Wirth (the creator of Pascal) to create "Object Pascal". So it was no surprise that Apple's Basic also had many Object Oriented concepts. It was a really neat extension to Basic, done in a very Object Oriented way, with many visual elements and ways to control a GUI from Basic. I loved it, it was cool.

Bill Gates and Co. were busily working on MS-Basic for Mac. He got wind of MacBasic and realized that the competition just blew his product away. This was quite an ego slap for Gates who has an uncontrollable urge to win at any cost. He did not want to win fairly (by producing the best product), he wanted to WIN <period>. He had one of those tantrums he is famous for, and went to Apple and resorted to muscle, again. If Apple didn't drop MacBasic immediately, then MS would pull all MS products from the Mac market for good.

Apple decided that Basic and non-professional programming was not that important for an Appliance-Computer like the Mac. Users were still going to be given one choice of Basic (MS's), and Apple had MacPascal (and was working on other products for the Mac) so this was not a big deal. Even though books had gone to press, the product had leaked out in late beta's and even early release versions, it had not quite had its big roll-out. So Apple pulled the product to appease Bill Gates and caved to extortion, again.

Bill Gates had won, and that was all he cared about -- but his Basic was underwhelming (to say the least) and was never that good (on the Mac or elsewhere). He lost interest in the product once he had achieved complete market domination -- and so he let support for it dwindle. A couple of years later he pulled the Mac version MS-Basic off the market, which wasn't being supported well anyway, and left the Mac without an introductory language for users.


One of Apples top Mac programmers (Bill Atkinson), was annoyed with the lack of Basic Programming (because of the situation with Microsoft). He decided to make his own solution. Many months of hard work later he had created Hypercard (or WildCard for those who remember old code-names). It was visual and Object Oriented, easy to use, and more graphically oriented than most other languages. Apple still had legal issues with MS and creating a tool around Basic, and Atkinson wanted something easier to learn, so he (along with partner Dan Winkler) created his own scripting language (HyperTalk).

Atkinson used Hypertext in his "Hypercard" in one of the first commercial uses of hypertext that I know of. Hypertext is now the primary concept of the World Wide Web and HTML (the file format of the Web). HTML means Hyper-Text Markup Language. Atkinson (and Apple) used Hypertext concepts 10 years before the web took off.

Hypercard met a need perfectly, and still is a cool introductory tool for scripting and control. Some great multi-media presentations can be made with it as well. Sadly Hypercard needed some upgrading pretty soon after release to support features Apple was adding to the Mac (like Color). However, Apple was only halfheartedly into Hypercard -- the mentality was still that it was an entry level programming tool and Apple would market it, but didn't think it was worth much effort. Apple has slowly changed its tune, and is now realizing some of its benefits, and are adding Hypercard functionality to QuickTime Media Layer.

VisualBasic = MacBasic + Hypercard

Hypercard may not have had Apples full attention, but it certainly got Bill Gates. He saw that Apple had once again found a better way. Bill Gates had also turned Microsoft into a business of copying Apples every move on the Mac, and bringing it to the PC as innovation. Windows 3.0 was their best rip-off yet (but was still not very good), and they needed something to compete with Hypercard. Lots of animators and people creating multimedia content could do so on the Mac and script something up in a hurry. Bill needed to win.

So Microsoft create VisualBasic. It was basically the object oriented functionality of Mac Basic (added to their basic) with more of the visual elements of Hypercard. It was quick to make since MS already had the code for their Basic. Bill Gates also decided to punish Apple for competing with him (via Hypercard) and to this day will not release Visual Basic for the Mac as a slap -- even though it would be beneficial for both markets to do so. The first versions of Visual Basic were hacks and a cheap rip-off, but Bill Gates was able to market it as "innovation". Not surprisingly the PC crowd loved Apples ideas (with Bill Gates wrapping) and it became an instant success.

Apple at this time was creating AppleEvents and AppleScript so that Mac users could script any application using a universal scripting language on the Mac. Bill Gates copied this idea about 5 years later with VB for Applications -- except that Apples was a universal and publicly documented scripting model so that all Apps could work well together, and VB for Apps was proprietary and a way for MS to crush a few more competitors and constrict the PC marketplace into fewer choices (with MS being the only choice).


Well once again MS successfully copied Apple's lead, which seems to be the Business Model that Bill G. has used to create his empire. Except that when he copies Apple it is more like Apple's evil twin, twisting every goal and intent just a little to give himself (and his company) more power and less competition. Apple is not flawless, but their philosophy is substantially different. Apple is a bunch of temperamental "artists", trying to create something new. MS is a bunch of insecure wannabe dictators trying to control the world. Both companies seem to have had their founders personalities (and goals) rub-off on them.

Inside of Microsoft it was a common "joke" to call Apple "R&D south", because of how many of their ideas they got directly from Apple. The thing that astounds me, and many other people in the know, is how often MS gets credit for things they did not create. MS doesn't usually even do a good job of copying other peoples ideas, and yet they get credit for it. This is why MS is hated by so many. They have contributed little to the PC industry, and done lots of harm by crushing superior products and competition, and then taking credit for other peoples innovations. The History of Visual Basic and its success is a microscopic look at the whole microcomputer industry. It represents Microsoft and Apple in their traditional roles -- Apple innovates; MS threatens, steals, cheats and wins; MS gets credit and becomes richer off other people ideas.

Talk about a compliment -- Bruce Horn (an original author of the Mac Finder) read this article and offered some helpful corrections and kind words.

Created: 4/26/97
Updated: 11/09/02

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