Microsoft on Friday increased the cost of support services for Visual Basic 6, a move that has angered some developers and prompted one development-tool vendor to offer a competing product at no charge.
As of April 1, Microsoft ended free professional telephone and online incident support and free critical updates, according to a posting on the company's MSDN site for developers. Both services, however, would be available for a fee through March 2008, when all support would stop.
In addition, Microsoft stopped issuing VB6 service packs, which comprise the latest collection of product fixes.
Microsoft's decision to stop what it calls "mainstream" support for VB6 angered thousands of developers who complained that the software giant did not provide adequate tools for migrating applications written in the older language to Microsoft's latest platform, .Net.
"I completely agree that you can't support a product forever, and you have to move forward," Jim Hubbard, owner of Hubbard Software in Lawrenceville, Ga., said. "But they have to give us a viable upgrade option. The tools they've given us are inadequate for upgrading VB6 code, especially in large projects, to VB .Net."
Hubbard owns a five-person company that does networking for real-estate firms, attorney offices and homebuilders. He said Microsoft's decision would probably be most damaging to small and medium-size businesses, which don't have the resources to rewrite older VB applications.
"From a financial standpoint, (SMBs) are least able to absorb the impact of something like this," Hubbard said.
Indeed, Microsoft is extending Premier Support for VB6 through March 2008. The program is designed to help large companies develop, deploy and manage business systems built with Microsoft products.
Hubbard was not alone in his complaints against the Redmond, Wash., company. More than 4,600 developers, including nearly 240 members of Microsoft's Most Valuable Professionals program, have signed a petition asking Microsoft to extend current support and provide an easier transition to .Net.
In addition, rival tool vendor Real Software Inc., which provided contact information for Hubbard and has been competing for Visual Basic customers for years, started offering the standard edition of its Realbasic 5.5 product at no charge through April 15.
"We've (always) been targeting VB customers, and this gave us the opportunity to get the message out," Geoff Perlman, president and chief executive of Austin, Texas-based, Real Software, said.
Realbasic is a rapid-application development environment that uses a language similar to VB. The biggest advantage of the tool is its ability to build applications for Linux and the Mac operating systems, as well as Windows 98 through XP. Realbasic does not build applications for .Net.
While standard Realbasic is available at no charge for two weeks, developers will have to buy the professional edition, if their interested in deploying applications to Linux or Mac platforms. Perlman is hoping that developers who use the standard edition will be willing to pay for future upgrades, including Realbasic 2005, which ships in 60 days.
Microsoft claims it has given developers adequate warning of the transition from VB6 to its replacement, Visual Basic .Net. The company said it first notified developers in 2002 that it would phase out support for VB6.
Microsoft, however, has acknowledged that despite the availability of migration tools, extensive rewriting of code may be necessary in migrating VB code to .Net. The company says it does offer tools that provide interoperability between .Net and VB applications.
In a survey of more than 400 developers in October, market researcher Evans Data Corp. found that North American developers use VB6 and earlier versions of the language more than VB .Net, 45 percent to 34 percent, respectively.
In Europe, Middle East and Africa, however, Visual Basic use as a whole has lost 25 percent of its developer base since 2003. Use of VB .Net, on the other hand, has grown to 32 percent of EMEA developers today from 16 percent in the fall of 2002.
Several million professional developers worldwide still program in VB, experts say.