FoxPro’s future fuels debate among users

Microsoft's plan to cease development and open source it are controversial

Despite a concerted online effort by devoted Visual FoxPro developers, Microsoft says it won’t change its plan to halt work on the venerable database programming tool.

Two Spanish developers have set up a wiki-based website called MasFoxPro (More FoxPro) that calls for Microsoft to continue developing the database and development tool after this summer’s release of Service Pack 2 for Visual FoxPro 9. Microsoft announced it would terminate development of the 23-year-old product, which it acquired a decade and a half ago, at its Most Valuable Professional Summit in Seattle last month.

In a statement earlier this month, Jay Roxe, Microsoft’s group product manager for Visual Studio, said that the decision to halt development of FoxPro was considered “very carefully” and remains the only realistic scenario.

“For Microsoft to continue to evolve the FoxPro base, we would need to look at creating a 64-bit development environment, and that would involve an almost complete rewrite of the core product,” Roxe said. “As far as forming a partnership with a third party is concerned, we’ve heard from a number of large FoxPro customers that this would make it impossible for them to continue to use FoxPro since it would no longer be from an approved vendor. We felt that putting the environment into open source on CodePlex [Microsoft’s open-source site], which balances the needs of both the community and the large customers, was the best path forward.”

Supporters of the petition take the opposite view. Even if Microsoft keeps its promise to support FoxPro users until 2015, halting development will make it impossible for FoxPro developers to hawk their wares. And, supporters say, why give up on a tool that, despite its age, remains more powerful and easier to use in many respects than Microsoft’s favored developer platform, .Net — especially when the investment for Microsoft would be minimal?

“There is still a lot of life left in FoxPro,” says Colin Keeler, director of financial systems for the South Dakota state government and an officer in the Virtual FoxPro User Group. South Dakota has used Visual FoxPro since the early 1990s to create its annual state budget. While the state now uses SQL Server for data storage, it still uses FoxPro as its chief front-end development platform.

FoxPro is a “kickass product,” says Alec Gagne, president of CrimeStar, a small vendor that has embedded FoxPro in its namesake police department management software for nearly a decade. “A lot of things that are now finding their way into .Net for handing data, frankly, I saw a long time ago in FoxPro,” he says. “While .Net is getting significantly better at handling data in its development tools, it’s just not there yet.”

Others are more sanguine, saying that Microsoft’s open-sourcing of FoxPro could give the resilient product its best chance for long-term survival.

“They said PowerBuilder was going to kill FoxBase back in 1994. Nobody uses PowerBuilder anymore,” says Andrew MacNeill, a Canadian FoxPro developer and evangelist. “Then they said Paradox was going to be the next big thing. But FoxPro has always been able to evolve. So this is not a death announcement by any stretch.”

Though unwelcome, Microsoft’s announcement was no surprise to many FoxPro users, who say the software has been under the axe almost from the day it was acquired by Microsoft in 1992.

Originally called FoxBase when it was released by Fox Software in 1984, it started off as a clone of the dominant database of the era, dBase II.

Microsoft bought FoxBase hoping to gain a strong immediate foothold in that then-burgeoning market. It did. By 1995, DevCon 6, the FoxPro-centric trade show put on by San Diego-based trade publisher Advisor Media, drew up to 3,000 attendees who came to gawk at FoxPro 3.0, the first “Visual” version put out by Microsoft.

“FoxPro bought me everything that I’ve got: my cars, my house, my dogs,” says Kevin Cully, an Atlanta developer who says he has relied on the software since the early 1990s.

Early on, Visual FoxPro nailed several key technical features. It had a mature object-oriented environment years before Java or Visual Basic 6 arrived. It can run as fast as in-memory databases for certain applications, MacNeill says.

Finally, its chameleon-like ability to serve both as a data store and as a data-minded development environment has helped it evolve for today’s web environments.

“Now it’s a great middleware piece you can team with SQL Server in a multi-tier architecture,” MacNeill says.

As dBase imploded due to mismanagement by successive owners, FoxPro’s original raison d’etre became less important, especially as Microsoft eyed the lucrative enterprise market.

But FoxPro’s use of the open .dbf file format made it impossible for Microsoft to raise prices for the software. Even today, Visual FoxPro 9.0 lists for just US$649. For no additional fee, developers can embed FoxPro in an unlimited number of their applications.

FoxPro, though wildly popular, became a burden and an opportunity cost for Microsoft. “Every time Microsoft sold a copy of FoxPro, I think Bill Gates thought about all the money they were losing from not being able to sell a copy of SQL Server,” Cully says.

Microsoft began plundering FoxPro of both its technology and its developers, incorporating them into more favoured products such as Access, SQL Server, Visual Basic 6, and now .Net. Calvin Hsia, Microsoft’s lead developer for Visual FoxPro, confirms that “a lot of what’s in SQL Server came from FoxPro technology”.

FoxPro also has technical shortcomings. Because of the .dbf format, it is more vulnerable to data corruption than true relational databases. And “from a development perspective, FoxPro-created apps don’t look as up-to-date [as others] right now,” MacNeill says.

Interest in FoxPro, especially in the US, has been on the wane for some time. DevCon last drew more than 1,000 attendees in 2000. Last year’s DevCon, now combined with other technologies, drew about 100 attendees to the FoxPro segment.

However, FoxPro remains a rock star in places like China and Eastern Europe. A 2005 presentation by Ken Levy, then Microsoft’s Visual FoxPro product manager, in Sofia, Bulgaria, reportedly drew 1,000 attendees.

“The way the French are about fashion, the Americans are about technology,” Cully says. “We are always throwing out what we’ve got for the latest thing. But in other countries, there are still lots of FoxPro users because they are focused on getting the job done in a cost-effective way, with little regard for the buzzword of the day.”

And interest in FoxPro may not be as low in the US as trade-show attendance figures indicate. For one, most active FoxPro developers are independent consultants who are more likely to participate in online forums than foot their own travel bill to a conference.

The Virtual FoxPro User Group has 14,000 active members, Keeler says. And according to a popular ranking of programming languages by Tiobe Software, FoxPro was ranked the 13th most-popular language as recently as last July, ahead of more modern languages such Visual Basic and ColdFusion.

Despite FoxPro’s history, it doesn’t face the problem of an aging user base, a problem mainframe computing shops are grappling with.

“Most of [the Virtual FoxPro User Group’s] US members are in their late 30s or early 40s,” South Dakota’s Keeler says. And because of Microsoft’s long neglect, they are used to being “very self-sufficient” in the fashion of open-source community members, he says. That cultural fit could help FoxPro transition to the open-source world.

Finally, while the recent release of Vista heralds the mainstreaming of 64-bit desktop computing — a problem since FoxPro is 32-bit only today — it will be many years before 32-bit PCs disappear, if the long transition from 16- to 32-bit Windows is any guide.

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