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Whither FoxPro

Robert Green

Microsoft is killing off FoxPro. Elvis is still alive. The government is hiding UFOs somewhere in the desert. Which of these rumors just won't die? The answer: all of them. You might dismiss the ones about Elvis and the UFOs by saying only nuts and crackpots would believe them and by pointing out that just about the only place you can read about these is in the Weekly World News. But what about the FoxPro rumor? It's been in InfoWorld, PC Week, InformationWeek and ComputerWorld. Last time I checked these were quite a bit higher caliber than supermarket tabloids, although I am sure some would disagree.


It was back in February that InformationWeek "broke" the story that Microsoft had decided that Visual FoxPro 4.0, due this fall, would be the last version and that Visual FoxPro would be merged with Visual Basic. The furor that erupted was perhaps unprecedented in the annals of software history. Some FoxPro loyals lashed themselves to the mast and vowed to go down with the ship. Others immediately threw themselves overboard or headed for life rafts with names like Visual Basic, Delphi, Powerbuilder and Java. Still others were the very voice of reason, imploring all to recognize that this tempest, like those before it, would soon pass. And of course some folks just kept their heads down and got some more work done.

Within days of the news reports, the new head of the FoxPro Product Unit, Tod Neilsen, assured the community that FoxPro was far from dead. We were assured there would be a Version 4.0 and at least one after that. We were assured that our investment in FoxPro would be safe for some time. The FoxPro loyalists were for the most part calmed by Tod's statements while the detractors were not. No surprise there.

Well, it's May now. Has anything changed? Did the good ship FoxPro run aground or does it sail on majestic, unharmed by the shots fired at it by the press and naysayers? It's always a good time for a dose of the hard truth. Get ready because here it comes.

Hard Truth Number 1

FoxPro is not dead and it is not dying. If Microsoft had not bought it then it probably would have died. Instead, they poured a great deal of resources into it and we got a Windows version. They then poured another great deal of resources into it and we got Visual FoxPro 3.0, the best version of FoxPro ever. 3.0 gave us object oriented programming, a true object model and great client-server access. Microsoft is, as you read this, pouring yet another great deal of resources into 4.0, which will add much better support for ActiveX controls, better performance and the ability to create OLE Automation servers, which will allow you to write 3-tier client-server applications using just Visual FoxPro.

Hard Truth Number 2

Some day, FoxPro will not exist. Neither will Visual Basic or Visual C++. Access may not either. Three years ago Microsoft announced that their goal in the three to five year time frame was to merge all of their developer products into one killer environment. It hasn't happened yet, but it will. It makes no sense to have four different form designers, four different menu editors, four different report writers, four different code editors and debuggers, etc. There should be one of each and FoxPro, Basic, C++ and Java should be nothing more than languages that you can use from the unified front end. Microsoft is committed to this. If you want a preview of what it might look like, check out the Developer Studio in Visual C++.

Hard Truth Number 3

Visual FoxPro will never be Microsoft's premier development environment. That's called Visual Basic. The FoxPro loyalists have for years been pleading with Microsoft to market FoxPro as the best tool for creating database applications. A word of advice my friends: stop trying. It will never happen. There will never be a FoxPro for Applications embedded in the Office products. There will never be a FoxPro Script embedded in Microsoft Internet Explorer™ (although you could write one if you really wanted). Visual Basic is a strategic product for Microsoft. Visual FoxPro is not.

Hard Truth Number 4

Microsoft is many things. Stupid is not one of them. They paid $170 million for FoxPro. There are at least fifty people on the FoxPro team. There are thousands of FoxPro developers. Visual FoxPro may not be strategic but it has strategic technology in it, like object oriented programming and its database engine. If they killed the product, what would they do with the FoxPro team. Fire them? No way. They will continue to work on FoxPro and get practice with other strategic technologies, such as OLE and the Internet. When the last day for FoxPro does arrive they will be able to be redeployed on other products. What about the legions of FoxPro developers? Why would Microsoft cut them off at the knees and abandon them? Don't you think Microsoft wants every one of them to upgrade to future versions of FoxPro, not to mention the Developer Studio of the future? I think Microsoft would rather have them using Microsoft products.

Hard Truth Number 5

FoxPro will exist and continue to be upgraded until the day it is merged along with Visual Basic and Visual C++ into a single environment. Microsoft will make a huge effort to ensure that existing applications will run in the new environment with minimal changes. They may or may not be successful. Moving to Visual Seventh Heaven, or whatever they call it, may be like moving from FoxPro 2.x to Visual FoxPro. If so, the FoxPro, Visual Basic and Visual C++ developers will all be in the same boat.

Hard Truth Number 6

Visual FoxPro 4.0 will be out by year end. Version 5.0 will appear 12 to 18 months after that. The soonest we will see the single environment is 12 to 18 months after that. It will be three years or more until FoxPro is merged and several years before FoxPro is hopelessly outdated. So a Visual FoxPro application built today will be modern for at least five years. And assuming Microsoft provides a reasonable migration path, you can move the FoxPro applications you build today and tomorrow into the single environment and continue supplying state of the art solutions for years to come.

Hard Truth Number 7

FoxPro has been hurt by the latest brouhaha, but not fatally. I spoke recently at FoxTeach in Toronto. There was a good crowd there but last year's was better. On the other hand, attendance at our FoxPro training is strong and shows no sign of dropping off.

The Future of FoxPro

Visual FoxPro is a wonderful product. It is not perfect. In some ways it is better than Visual Basic. It has object oriented programming and does a better job of data handling. In many ways it is not as good as Visual Basic. It is rather resource intensive, has less than complete support for ActiveX controls and has a lousy editor and debugger. Visual FoxPro 4.0 will catch up to Visual Basic in some areas but Visual Basic 5.0 will outpace it in others.

FoxPro is not going away in the near future. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong. You can safely build FoxPro applications that will solve a wide range of business problems for many years.

Visual FoxPro or Visual Basic - How About Both?

There are a lot of FoxPro loyalists who are sticking solely with FoxPro and refusing to look at or learn Visual Basic. This, I believe, is a mistake. Visual Basic was the first to be able to make OLE Automation servers. It was the first to fully host OCXs. The next version will allow you to create ActiveX controls. Visual Basic Script will be in the next version of Microsoft Internet Explorer.

If you want to be completely on the cutting edge you would know both Visual FoxPro and Visual Basic, as well as SQL Server. Then you could build any application in response to any business problem. This is the path we at IMG embarked on years ago. We are multilingual and we are much better off for it. When the single killer development environment arrives those of us who are well versed in all Microsoft technologies will have a much shorter learning curve than those who have specialized in one.

See also: Microsoft FoxPro People: Robert Green

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