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According to Hoyle...

Basic Update 2008

April 2008

by Jonathan Hoyle



Two years ago, we devoted three columns to the state of Basic development environments available on the Macintosh.


In Part I, we looked at the history of the Basic wars on the Mac, including the stunning story of Apple's MacBasic product.


In Part II, we reviewed a number of modern Basic development environments available today, both free and commercial, offering our recommendations.


In Part III, we looked at a few Basic products which were not viable products at that time, but showed strong potential for the future. At the end of that series, I professed my optimism for the future of Basic on the Mac.


In this month's article, we look at the current state of Basic development environments in 2008.


The Basics I will cover in this article are those which include the Macintosh as an intended target. Although it is possible to run some Linux-based Basics on the Mac under X11 (such as Decimal Basic), or just about any Windows development environment with Parallels or Boot Camp, I do not describe them here.


The reason is simply this: there are a number of acceptable options which run natively on Mac OS X, and thus there does not appear to be much reason to have to resort to emulation-based versions. I will make references to some Classic-only Basic compilers, but I do so only for informational purposes and do not recommend such applications.


Dead and Dying Basics


In the past two years, there have been a number of disappointments in the Mac Basic community. The first and foremost is the cancellation of the ExtremeBasic project. Author Andrew Barry, who also originated REALbasic, has stated on his Blog that he no longer believes there is any value to continuing ExtremeBasic so has given it up.


As for wxBasic, author David Cuny was kind enough to inform me that someone had succeeded in making a Mac OS X port in late 2005, but the project fizzled out shortly thereafter.


Many Mac Basic development environments appear to be alive but have gone unchanged for several years. These include: Omikron Basic (June 2004), CocoaBasic (since 2003), METAL Basic (December 2001), and True BASIC (2002, but described in more detail below).


A few well-known commercial products have been dead for quite some time, yet still seem to captivate interest, especially on Ebay. These include Visual MacStandard Basic, Microsoft QuickBASIC for the Macintosh, SCBasic and Mainstay's VIP-BASIC.


There are a number of Mac-based Basics which have been discontinued but whose source code has been made available as open source for those interested in updating or modernizing them.


For the true Basic diehard, this is a great opportunity to take a project which has most of the legwork already done, but allowing him to tweak to his tastes. Dead Basics are available for such resurrection include TNT Basic, Object Basic and Brandy Basic.



The 600 lb Gorilla: $200 Standard Edition/$500 Professional Edition (price is per platform)


REALbasic 2008 is without question the dominant Basic development environment available today on the Macintosh. There is no close second. REALbasic is considered by many to be the cross-platform equivalent to Microsoft Visual Basic. All other products described in this column stand in RB's shadow (at least as of now). REALbasic had a detailed review in a previous According to Hoyle column, so I shan't repeat it here. However, one change has taken place since that review which may help change the state of the Mac Basic world: its price.


Given REAL Software's near monopoly, it has decided to raise RB's price structure. In the summer of 2006, the Professional Edition jumped from $399 to $500 (a 25% increase), and then recently REAL announced a price increase for the Standard Edition to double from $100 to $200. And remember that this price will be per platform.


REAL's slogan used to read "Cross-Platform That Really Works"; it ought to soon be "Cross-Platform That's Really Expensive", as it will cost a minimum of $400 to compile a REALbasic project for both Macintosh and Windows.


If the project requires the capabilities of the Professional version (such as being a console application), that price jumps to $1000 for Mac & Windows, and $1500 if you wish to include Linux. For this reason, it is worth at least considering some of the alternatives which exist for the Mac Basic developer.


You may find that one of these cheap or free alternatives is sufficient for your needs, and you can save on hundreds of dollars on your REALbasic subscription renewals.



FutureBASIC: Now FREE!


FutureBASIC is the longest running Mac development environment still available today, with its history going back to ZBasic from the mid-1980's. In the early 1990's, Zedcor, the company that made ZBasic, changed its name to FutureBASIC, and soon after it became the dominant Basic on the Macintosh (and had remained so until the rise of REALbasic). Today, FutureBASIC is run by Staz Software, and Staz has continued to offer a quality product through these past many years. Given its history, it is no wonder that FB is the only development environment (for any language) which can compile applications which can run on 68K Macs running System 6.0.5, all the way to modern Macs running Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, and anything in between.


With oodles of sample projects available to satiate almost any appetite, FutureBASIC has the experience and quality to be a winning choice.


People who know of FutureBASIC already know much of what I have already written. However, what they may not know is this: As of 1/1/2008, this $169 product is now available as freeware!


This is great news for all who wish to develop quality GUI apps, particularly those which need to run on older hardware. And other exciting news is the introduction of FBtoC, a translator which converts FutureBASIC projects into C projects, compilable with gcc.


This is particularly useful for FutureBASIC users wishing to create their own Universal Binaries. I highly recommend anyone even causally interested in FutureBASIC to visit the web site and download it and give it a try. You won't regret it.



KBasic: 24.95 Euro (~$35US) (price is for all platforms)


Here's a Basic development environment that is beginning to take the market by storm. Author Bernd Noetscher has done a wonderful job bringing KBasic to the Macintosh in a relatively short period of time. KBasic's great reputation is well-deserved, as it is becoming a premiere development platform. Using the Qt cross-platform framework, KBasic is able to deliver versions for most operating systems without compromise.


In fact, one can think of KBasic as essentially QtBasic, or Basic for Qt. At this time, KBasic is the best cross-platform alternative to REALbasic. And if you have no need for cross-platform capabilities, and the Mac is the only platform you are interested in developing for, then Bernd Noetscher's other (soon-to-be released) product may be for you...



Objective-Basic: 69.95 Euro (~$99US) Commercial development / FREE for GPL development


Objective-Basic is the new kid in town, a Mac-only development environment which combines the power and capabilities of objected oriented programming of Objective-C with the ease and friendliness of the Basic programming language. Expected to be released in the 2nd Quarter of 2008, Objective-Basic is the second brainchild of Bernd Noetscher, the ingenious author of KBasic.


Essentially, Objective-Basic is Cocoa development using Basic instead of of Objective-C. As with Objective-C programming, Objective-Basic's GUI editor is Apple's Interface Builder, and all the Cocoa framework objects are exposed as Objective-Basicobjects.


Another extremely powerful feature is its ability to mix C and Objective-C into Objective-Basic source code. This allows you the option of writing in Basic throughout most of your code, and switch to C or Objective-C only when you feel the need to. Part of the success Bernd is relying on is his leveraging KBasic for much of the foundation of Objective-Basic, but then concentrating on Mac-specific technologies where those are superior. The minimum system requirement is Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. Look out REALbasic, this may be the competitor that succeeds you.



PureBasic: $99 (price is for all platforms)


With a reasonably good reputation in the Windows and Linux community, Fantaisie Software has ported its PureBasic development environment to the Mac OS X platform. Unfortunately, the efforts appear half-hearted and the workmanship lacking. On its introductory web page, PureBasic is described to be fully supported only for Windows, Linux and Amiga (huh? Amiga???), but not the Macintosh. Mac OS X is clearly a second class citizen, with its recent Mac release (version 4.10) coming more than two years after the previous one (version 3.94, its first Mac offering).


Will Mac users have to wait until 2010 for the third release? After two years in waiting, one might expect the latest Mac OS X version to be up to date with current technology; unfortunately, this is not the case, as this release is still PowerPC only. Furthermore, the product's price tag rather high for what you get, relative to other offerings. As with KBasic, a license to PureBasic is a license for all platforms, but at almost triple the price.


On the plus side though, the PureBasic compiler is very efficient. And on the off chance you absolutely need that Amiga compatibility, PureBasic is certainly the only game in town. But for most Mac users, however, I recommend a wait and see approach for this product. I'd like to see more Mac OS X emphasis before parting with my $99, including (as a minimum) a universal binary and full Leopard support. In the meantime, I'll keep my eye on PureBasic ... but my money in my pocket.



Chipmunk Basic: Free


What a great program this is! If you are interested in an old-school, minimal, text-based Basic, Chipmunk Basic is the only one you'll ever need. My first experience with programming in Basic was back in the early 1980's with my TI-99/4A computer, and with all the great advances made with the language over the past quarter century, I can still find text-based Basic development very satisfying to write. No, you're not going to create the next Microsoft Excel with it, but for a simple quick and dirty utility creator, Chipmunk Basic is hard to beat.


The most recent update (as of this writing) was December 2007 with release 3.6.4(b7) which is a Universal Binary, but there are versions that will run on earlier versions of Mac OS X, Classic, 68K, and even pre-System 7. In case you have cross-platform needs, there are Windows and Linux versions of Chipmunk Basic as well. It's absolutely free and without question one of my favorites. Hats off to author Ron Nicholson for this excellent product.



True BASIC: $19 Student/$39 Bronze/$195 Silver/$495 Gold (price is per platform)


In writing this article, I originally planned to include True BASIC in the dead products section, but due to many misconceptions about its status, I decided to dedicate its own space to it. True BASIC was created in 1985 by John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz, the creators of the Basic programming language itself in 1963. Macintosh support was available from the start, and it remained a strong product in the educational market.


With time, other Basic products became more dominant, and as its market shrank, the business case for further Macintosh development became weaker. Dot releases of True BASIC 5 trickle to a stop in the early 2000's, with the Mac version reaching its final version of 5.42 in 2002, a Classic-only release.


The web site today has gone rather stale, with its What's New section containing an upgrade offer good "from now until 12/31/2006". On the main TB page, a recent FAQ question includes "When Will an OS-X [sic] Version of True BASIC Be Available?" The vague response (which has remained unchanged for about 6 years) is that it "will be available in the future" but that "no release date has yet been scheduled." It should come as no surprise to you now that plans for such a release have been abandoned some time ago.


Interestingly, there was a single development release of True BASIC for OS X with limited distribution, but it was disastrously buggy and ill-featured, pretty much killing off any further attempts to salvage a Mac version. Within the last couple of years, Kemeny & Kurtz sold off their interest in the product, and I have not received any response to my inquiries from the new owner. It is becoming increasingly obvious that no new version of True BASIC will ever see the light of day.





Over the past two years, the face of Basic development has changed a great deal. Although REALbasic remains the dominant development environment, it may not remain so for long. Competition on other fronts will make REALbasic have to work harder for its money, whilst its ever-increasing retail price makes it less attractive. I admit I am very disappointed at the demises of ExtremeBasic and the Mac port of wxBasic, as I had expected each of these to become serious products today.


Although I am sorry to see the long-time FutureBASIC leave the commercial Basic arena, I am very happy that Staz has decided to make it available as freeware. With both Chipmunk Basic and FutureBASIC now as free downloads, any Mac developer can jump into high quality Basic programming at no cost. True BASIC remains an embarassment, as its undead Mac corpse deceptively continues to masquerade as a living product.


As for cross-platform Basics, KBasic continues to impress, whilst PureBasic continues to disappoint. But without question, the big news for Basic developers on the Mac is the upcoming release of Objective-Basic.


Commercial developers are probably still best served sticking with REALbasic for now, although its escalating pricing structure is increasingly worrisome. Those needing cross-platform GUI development will likely find KBasic to be a very agreeable replacement, and certainly a better buy for the money.


If you don't need to perform any GUI development, Chipmunk Basic is without question the best. Mac developers not interested in cross-platform capabilities should be exceedingly thrilled with the free availability of FutureBASIC.


And everyone should be greatly anticipating the release of Objective-Basic. Once it is available, I will devote an entire column exclusively devoted to Objective-Basic, as I believe it has an excellent chance of being the next killer development environment.



Coming Up Next Month: More on Basic in 2008. See you next month!


See a list of previous According to Hoyle columns