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Microsoft builds Visual Basic for the Web

The software giant is sprucing up its most popular software development tool in hopes of attracting more builders of e-commerce Web sites to its Windows operating system.

Microsoft is sprucing up its most popular software development tool in hopes of attracting more builders of e-commerce Web sites to its Windows operating system.

Microsoft today announced plans for a new version of Visual Basic, a visual-oriented tool that will allow software developers to build Web software as easily as writing a Windows-only application.

Visual Basic, the industry's most popular development tool according to recent studies, revolutionized Windows development in 1991 because of its ease-of-use: Instead of writing all the software code by hand, programmers dragged and dropped pre-built software code on their computer screens. Now the giant software maker is building a version of Visual Basic for the Web.

"If you are a Visual Basic programmer and you want to build an application that provides some kind of service over the Web, you have to write a lot of software code to glue the application to the Web," said analyst Mike Gilpin of Giga Information Group. "Now it will be automatic."

The move today is part of Microsoft's new strategy to maintain its Windows' dominance as computing starts to move away from desktop computers and toward more Internet-enabled wireless devices, such as cell phones and personal digital assistants.

Later this week, Microsoft will announce Windows 2000, its new high-end operating system more than four years in the making, intended to keep Windows the dominant operating system in the computing world. The company faces new challenges from Web-based devices and alternative operating systems, such as Linux.

Fearful of losing its influence among developers, Microsoft has been shifting away from the PC-centric model of computing to an Internet model, where servers are used to store and deliver software to computing devices. Most Windows-based applications today are written for standalone PCs, where the data and software are stored.

With about 3.2 million developers using Visual Basic today, Microsoft wants to make it easy for Windows developers to migrate to Web development, said Bill Dunlap, lead product manager for Microsoft's development tools.

"That's half the world's developers who want to move to the Web. They want to make the move but are scared because they know the client-side desktop environment, but they don't know HTML, XML or scripting," Dunlap said. "What we're doing is building a compelling package that makes it easy for these guys to use their existing skills for immediate Web development."

Microsoft last September said it planned to make Windows 2000 attractive to Web developers with a set of new Web development software, called Windows DNA 2000. As part of its strategy, the software firm said it would release a new database software and a suite of tools, called Visual Studio 7.0, which includes development tools for several programming languages, such as C, C++ and Visual Basic.

Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer will announce the new version of Visual Studio today during a keynote speech at the Visual Basic Insiders Technical Summit in San Francisco.

The update to Visual Basic--available in about a year--will feature a built-in, drag-and-drop HTML editor that will let developers create Web sites without having to write HTML code, said Dave Mendlen, Microsoft's Visual Basic product planner.

Mendlin said Visual Basic will also support object-oriented programming features, a method that breaks up software into reusable chunks, making it easier to maintain. Java and C++ are examples of programming languages that are object-oriented.

Analysts said adding the XML and object-oriented programming features will allow Microsoft to position Visual Basic as more of a competitor to the Java programming language, which is touted as being able to run on all types of computers, regardless of the operating system.

"Visual Basic is a nice easy-to-use programming language, and the new object-oriented technology makes it more competitive with Java," said analyst Anne Thomas Manes of Giga Information Group.

Hurwitz Group analyst Evan Quinn said he expects the new version of Visual Basic will be popular among developers.

"The cutting edge firms are using C++ and Java. But the vast majority of business developers don't know C++ or Java," Quinn said. "Visual Basic is clearly the leader in the world today. And if you can empower developers to build for e-business, that's a pretty huge market."

The new version of Visual Basic will use a new process Microsoft is calling "ASP+," which compiles the software code into instructions a computer can understand, making the software run faster. Previously, developers used a scripting language called Active Server Pages (ASP), which was slower because it featured statements in English that had to be interpreted into computer language.

Visual Basic's support Taking sides on XMLof XML (Extensible Markup Language), a Web standard for exchanging data, will allow businesses to conduct online transactions with customers and partners. Because of the XML support, Visual Basic developers can link their Web applications to other programming models, including Enterprise JavaBeans and Component Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA), Mendlen said.

The XML support will also let Visual Basic developers support services available on other Web sites, such as Microsoft's Passport. Passport is an electronic wallet that allows users to sign in once and buy items online without having to enter credit card and personal information on numerous sites.