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GBIC >> VB >> Tutorials >> Overview
It can be very difficult to pick up a new skill, especially when the training material starts off assuming you know more than you actually do! Throughout my tutorials I will continually try to put things into perspective and to explain why a certain capability of VB is valuable and whether it might be valuable to you. This means that my introductions to each of the sections will be a bit long, but the intent is to set the stage so that you will know why you need to know the information in that section. To begin, let's talk about VB and how it was derived from its predecessor, BASIC.

A Definition

Visual Basic is a much-enhanced version of the BASIC programming language and the BASIC Integrated Development Environment (IDE). The bottom line of the enhancement is the VB can create Windows programs whereas BASIC could only create DOS programs. Ok, so the modifications are very major, but the idea holds true that Visual Basic is BASIC for Windows.

One of the many significant improvements is that VB provides massive support for easily creating the user interface to your applications. This is accomplished within the VB Integrated Development Environment (IDE), in which you use a mouse to "draw" your application and use the keyboard to type in the code that is to be executed. When I write a VB program, I almost always create the user interface "shell" before I write any code at all. This approach, made so simple by the VB IDE, allows me to evaluate how the user will interact with the program. I can generally create the initial version of the shell in just hours. It's a much better way to program than to create pieces of the interface (and the corresponding code) as you go. It especially is beneficial in that you can demonstrate to the users just exactly what they will see, and you can do it early enough in the development cycle to prevent costly reiterations later in the cycle.

The single largest effect on coding that VB introduced was the concept of an event-driven programming model. In the old BASIC you had to write code to watch for the occurrence of user events (pressing a key, using the mouse, ...). VB performs that function for you, and in fact, the only time code will execute in VB is in response to such an event!

And finally, the other major concept that VB has incorporated is the concept of objects. Objects provides a way to link together both code and data into a "package" in such a way as to make handling and saving the code/data more intuitively. VB forms are objects, menus are objects, and the so are the intrinsic VB controls. A lot more on this later!

VB has also provided a wide variety of built-in code that programmers once had to handle themselves. Of most significance is the built-in database handling features of VB. It is generally accepted that over half of all VB applications are written to handle databases! You'll find the built-in database features of VB to be very powerful, and that you can tap into them at whatever level of programming skill you possess.

A second area in which VB has begun to provide built-in support is that of Internet access. The VB features are still maturing, but with the tools available you can create very useful applications. I've included Internet topics in the Advanced section of the tutorial because it is such a specialty application, not so much because its concepts cannot be handled by less skilled programmers. Feel free to skip around in the tutorial if you find a section that interests you.

Critical Visual Basic Elements

Although Visual Basic has grown into a fairly complex programmming tool, it is still the case that a programmer can pretty much ignore all of the capabilities he doesn't need (or understand) and still create very useful applications.

But, no matter how much a beginner, or how advanced you are, there are still some fundamental areas in which you must be proficient to become a VB programmer.

When you start VB, you will see a group of windows that are know as the VB IDE (integrated development environment). As a programmer you will spend the majority of you time here, so you might as well get used to the IDE and spend a fair amount of time exploring the menu options that the IDE provides. Pay closed attention to the keyboard shortcuts that are available. If you've read my other Beginner sections you'll know that I am a big fan of the keyboard and have argued that the #1 productivity tool you have is good typing skills. While in the IDE, you'll find the keyboard shortcuts invaluable in writing your program quickly.

The second aspect of VB which programmers of all skill levels will have in common is the VB language itself. Most of the questions I get through email are focussed on "how do I ..." and the answer is almost always couched in terms of the code that it takes to perform the task. If ever there was less boring reading than the VB language reference manual, I don't know what it is, but it also provides one of the biggest payoffs of studying that I can recommend. At least 90% of every question I answer for visitors to my site is in the manual!

Every Visual Basic application will consist of controls, usually a lot of them! In my opinion, the availability of controls (built-in, or controls you can purchase) is the single biggest reason why VB has reached the level of popularity that it currently enjoys. Because controls represent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of manpower to come up with full-featured, debugged code which you can resuse in your program, controls are easily the most cost-effective, and the most time-effective way that a VB programmer has to add features to his program. Bottom line is that any good programmer must be an expert at handling controls. In my experience, once you've mastered the intrinsic controls, learning new controls becomes very straightforward.

Because VB has moved to the event-driven model of programming, the last critical VB topic I will mention is that of events. Events are not very complicated but the concept is significantly different than the old-style linear programming of the original BASIC. Simply put, when a VB program is started it sits and waits for an event to occur. The event can be a keypress by the user or the movement of a mouse. Either way, the VB programming model is that your program will only react to events. When an events occurs, VB will execute the code associated with that event. So your job as a programmer is to basically create the code which your program executes in response to those events.

Programming Basics

To toss in a bit of philosophy, I view a programmer's job as getting to the end product with a minimum of effort. When you're paid by the hour you have an obligation to your employer (even if it's yourself) to minimize the cost/schedule of completing the assignment. To that end, I will emphasize over and over again the importance of using existing capabilities (such as your own reusable code, VB-provided controls, or even controls that you purchase).

In light of this optimize-your-time philosophy, I also believe that every VB programmer should strive to become an expert in the following two areas: Databases and Reporting. It's very common for applications to store data and to provide that data in a printed format (by some estimates, 80% of all VB applications use databases). And while this tutorial will discuss various ways to perform these tasks, most programmers will find that the capabilities of VB for creating/editing Access (a Microsoft product) databases and VB's capabilities for reporting that data (as exemplified by the Crystal Reports control or the newer built-in VB reporting features) are the most effective tools you can use for increasing your effectiveness in creating VB applications.

If you want to become a serious VB programmer, you must become an expert in these areas. I'm not saying that Microsoft's built-in tools are the only, or best, tools available for creating/editing databases and reporting on them. What I am saying is that tools which provide similar functions will be one of the most commonly used tools of those available to a programmer and that any serious programmer must take the time to develop strong skills with these tools.

One by-product programming strategy of my philosophy is that newbies should not get too anxious to jump into the more advanced features of VB. Take the time to learn the basics, and especially how to apply them with ingenuity. Once you've exhausted the potential of the fundamentals is the time to consider more advanced techniques. In my experience, over 90% of my programs consists of fundamental programming techniques, while only rarely am I compelled to dip into the more complex features that VB has to offer.

VB History (VB3, VB4, VB5 and VB6)

Starting with VB5, Visual Basic became an exclusively 32-bit programming language, suitable for programming only Win9X or NT systems. If you must program for Win 3.x, then you'll have to drop back to either VB3 or VB4, both of which are in pretty short supply. VB4 had the dual ability to support Win3.x as well as Win9X/NT systems but my personal recommendation is that if you need 32-bit system support, go straight to VB6 and if 16-bit is your need then stick with VB3.

The VB Learning Edition is the most affordable, and truth is that you can do a lot with it, particularly if you use the Windows API to augment its capabilities. However, in light of its better database features and its greater variety of controls, I suggest you go straight to the Professional Edition if at all possible. The price is steep, but it really does pay itself back in terms of time savings. If you need the VB Enterprise edition then you should have it paid for by the "Enterprise" which requires it. Individual programmers generally do not need the Enterprise edition.