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Good News, Bad News for Visual FoxPro Developers

As official Microsoft support for VFP comes to an end, loyal developers rally around the venerable programming language.

Microsoft's announcement in March that it won't develop any more versions of Visual FoxPro (VFP) came as a surprise to almost no one -- particularly not those who had been paying attention since the company shipped first VFP 9 in December 2004 and Service Pack 1 (SP1) a year later.

And despite the product's uncertain future, many VFP developers are not deterred.

"My personal reaction upon reading the announcement was, 'whatever,'" says Craig Boyd, CEO of SweetPotato Software in Forest Lake, Minn. "For over two decades, FoxPro has remained king when it comes to creating data-centric applications [and] in my opinion, there's nothing in the present or on that distant, ever-shifting horizon that will change this."

Despite a natural tendency for supporters to put the best face on their plight, there are some apparent actual reasons for their braggadocio. For instance, developers will be able to continue to buy VFP 9 licenses. The software will also continue to be provided via MSDN subscription. Plus, part of the code -- though by no means all -- will be open sourced.

Just the Facts
Microsoft announced at its Most Valuable Professionals (MVP) Summit in Seattle in March that there will be no VFP 10, or any other updated versions beyond VFP 9 Service Pack 2 (SP2), which is due out this summer. However, the company will continue to provide mainstream support for VFP 9 until Jan. 12, 2010, and extended support until Jan. 13, 2015, according to the Microsoft support lifecycle page.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is working to release "Sedna." Named after a recently discovered and very distant celestial object, this set of add-ins for VFP 9 is due for final release this summer.

The Sedna project aims to provide interoperability with parts of the .NET Framework and improve compatibility with SQL Server 2005, as well as provide wrappers for Vista APIs that make it easier to write applications for Vista machines. Sedna is built using the VFP 9 extensibility model, and will be available for free download.

Additionally, Microsoft plans to turn the Sedna source code over to the VFP community via its CodePlex open source site at the end of the summer so developers can continue to expand it. VFP will also continue to gain additions via open source projects such as VFPx.

But even though the company is washing its hands of anything beyond code maintenance for the next seven years, don't expect Microsoft to release the VFP core code base to the open source community. The company has ruled out that move for intellectual property reasons, though it's trying to put the best face on it.

"One of the things I'm proudest of is that while we can't open source the core, the extensibility model allows folks to keep adding new capabilities," says Alan Griver, group manager for VFP.

Cinderella at the Ball
VFP, along with its predecessor FoxPro, has a unique history. When Microsoft bought out Fox Software in 1992, it was not the first time that Microsoft had gone outside the company to purchase a product-take PowerPoint, for instance.

But Fox Software brought along its own subculture that, interestingly, persisted even after the Ohio-based company had been incorporated into Microsoft. Customers were largely small businesses who gathered around themselves an aura of the early days of do-it-yourself personal computing, evoking memories of organizations like the now-famous Homebrew Computer Club.

While Fox Software was incorporated into Microsoft, it was never fully assimilated. Partly that was because Microsoft found itself with two personal database products with somewhat different markets.

Microsoft's homegrown Access database was designed for business users, whereas FoxPro was designed for database developers. Originally dubbed FoxBase and later FoxPro, and even later VFP, it features a database development language -- Xbase -- that was originally popularized by the now-defunct dBase database from Ashton-Tate, and later Borland Software Corp., in the mid and late 1980s.

"What makes VFP unique is that it closely binds a data-centric language with a local database engine, unlike any other developer tool," says Ken Levy, a former VFP product manager.

Because it was not directed towards the same markets as Access and Microsoft Office, the VFP product group was pretty much left to its own devices.

Then, there was Microsoft's database server play, SQL Server. Unlike FoxPro and Access, SQL Server is at the core of the company's major pitch to enterprises -- Microsoft's competitor to Oracle and DB2.

Through the years, FoxPro evolved into VFP, becoming another of the company's "Visual" products, replete with integration into Visual Studio. But it was always somehow out of the mainstream. To some extent, that helped VFP establish a following that verges on cultish.

FoxPro, We hardly Knew Ye

Since Microsoft announced it would no longer produce new versions of Visual FoxPro, developers have bombarded RDN with feedback. Here's a sampling:

"Visual FoxPro 3 was when I think the package really matured. After Microsoft bought the program, they were more interested in stealing from it to enhance Access (now and then a mediocre database at best) than promoting FoxPro. Visual FoxPro was object-oriented a full year before Oracle was, and Microsoft had an excellent opportunity. Instead, Microsoft sat on it. I've been a loyal supporter of Microsoft from the start and I'm a Microsoft partner now, but what Microsoft did to FoxPro was wrong!"
Steve Donaldson, Consultant
Camden, S.C.

"Most of the angst by VFP developers over its demise is not because its adherents can't or won't learn the language du jour (C# or VB.NET); rather, it's simply the fact that writing data-centric applications in .NET, even for an experienced .NET developer, takes considerably more code and more time than it would if done in Visual FoxPro. This fact has been conveyed loudly and clearly for years by Microsoft [VFP] MVPs, among others. Were it not for the obvious loss of developer productivity when switching from VFP to .NET, [VFP] would likely have been axed years ago by Microsoft."
Bruce Allen, Developer
Keller, Texas

"The death of FoxPro saddens me. I left Ashton-Tate's dBase for FoxPro and it served me well for many years. I graduated from FP to a relatively unknown (but rather amazing) cross-platform RDBMS called 4th Dimension [4D] (see http://www.4d.com). As FoxPro developers search for a vibrant, growing alternative, I hope they are as fortunate as I was in finding 4D."
Robert B. Morrison, VP IT
Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands



What contributed further to VFP's popularity among developers was the direct involvement of the community with the product team's developers, coupled with a distribution scheme that enabled extensions written in VFP to be freely distributed.

Another reason for VFP's success and loyal developer base is that it has never broken backward compatibility. In fact, all versions of FoxPro going back to FoxPro 1.0 for DOS will execute on the VFP 9 runtime engine with few or no changes.

Waking Sleeping Beauty
Microsoft surveys have found that more than half of the VFP customer base has used FoxPro-based products for more than 12 years. Additionally, 60 percent are overseas and 80 percent work in small companies, according to data gathered in 2005.

While some developers have expressed dismay over the announcement, most are taking a cautiously optimistic view of the future -- at least in the near term.

"As a company, we're still developing new VFP applications," says Brian Jones, CEO of DPRA Inc. in Knoxville, Tenn. "A significant concern for me is not so much the immediate impact on VFP development but the fact that it's becoming more difficult to attract or find VFP developers, [because] when a product's gurus move on and new ones don't fill their places, then the community's focal point fades."

Translation: Releasing Sedna to VFP's community will help extend the tool's life, but eventually most developers (and their customers) will have to move on to something else.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.

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