The .NET Framework is Microsoft’s new computing platform that simplifies the design, development, and deployment of computer applications. Developed particularly to facilitate the creation of Internet applications and distributed Internet applications, the .NET Framework features the .NET Framework Class Library (FCL), a systematic class framework to be used for the development of system tools and utilities as well as application software. This chapter assesses the significance of the .NET FCL and discusses accessing it from Visual Basic code.
Although programmers using languages like C++ have been using frameworks for system and application development from the very inception of their language (the Microsoft Foundation Class Library, or MFC, for instance, is a framework for developers of Windows applications using C++), comprehensive frameworks or class libraries are comparatively rare in Visual Basic programming. For the most part, programmers of previous versions of Visual Basic depended on two major sources to extend the Visual Basic language: the Win32 API, and ActiveX servers exposed through COM automation.
The Win32 API is a procedural library that allows the developer to create programs that run under Windows and take advantage of core Windows operating system services. The Win32 API has been enhanced on a regular basis since it was introduced to support Windows NT 3.0, and it now consists of several thousand functions and constants located in a number of dynamic link libraries (DLLs). Because it is a loose collection of functions, there are’nt necessarily any consistent conventions in naming functions or in designating function parameters. The function-based style of programming using the Win32 API has a number of limitations:
Although a collection of Win32 API functions may be interdependent, at the same time each function tends to be a more or less independent entity that is called in isolation from other functions in your program. This tends to make the Win32 API as a whole difficult for all programmers to learn and master.
The Win32 API originally was developed as a set of functions that would be called primarily from C code. Although the Win32 API can be called from Visual Basic code, writing code that relies heavily on calls to external DLLs has always been something of an adventure in Visual Basic. Much of the challenge centers on the fact that the type systems used by C and Visual Basic are not completely compatible, so that Visual Basic data types have to be converted to data types expected by C language routines.
To get some sense of the difference in style between the function-based, procedural programming that characterizes the Win32 API and the object-oriented programming that characterizes the .NET Framework, Examples 1-1 and 1-2 contain the source code for a console mode routine that launches the application responsible for handling the data file whose name the user enters in a text box. Example 1-1 is written in Visual Basic 6.0 (although it could have run under any version from VB 4 through VB 6) and relies extensively on Win32 API calls, and particularly on calls to the registry API. Example 1-2 is written for Visual Basic .NET and relies on the .NET Framework Class Library, and particularly on its Registry and RegistryKey classes.
Example 1-1. Launching an application using the Win32 API
Option Explicit Private Declare Function RegCloseKey Lib "advapi32.dll" ( _ ByVal hKey As Long) As Long Private Declare Function RegOpenKey Lib "advapi32.dll" _ Alias "RegOpenKeyA" ( _ ByVal hKey As Long, ByVal lpSubKey As String, _ phkResult As Long) As Long Public Declare Function RegQueryValue Lib "advapi32.dll" _ Alias "RegQueryValueA" ( _ ByVal hKey As Long, ByVal lpSubKey As String, _ ByVal lpValue As String, lpcbValue As Long) As Long Private Declare Function RegQueryValueEx Lib "advapi32.dll" _ Alias "RegQueryValueExA" ( _ ByVal hKey As Long, ByVal lpValueName As String, _ ByVal lpReserved As Long, lpType As Long, _ lpData As Any, lpcbData As Long) As Long Public Declare Function WinExec Lib "kernel32" ( _ ByVal lpCmdLine As String, ByVal nCmdShow As Long) _ As Long Public Const MAX_PATH = 260 Private Const HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT = &H80000000 Private Const ERROR_SUCCESS = 0& Public Const REG_DWORD = 4 Public Const REG_SZ = 1 Public Const SW_SHOWNORMAL = 1 Private Sub Main() Dim strFile As String, strExten As String Dim strProgID As String, strExe As String Dim lPos As Long Dim hKey As Long, lStrLen As Long strFile = InputBox("Enter Name of File to Open: ", _ "Open File", "") If strFile = "" Then Exit Sub ' Get file extension lPos = InStrRev(1, strFile, ".") If lPos = 0 Then MsgBox "Filename must include an extension." Exit Sub Else strExten = Mid(strFile, lPos) End If ' Get programmatic identifier If RegOpenKey(HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT, strExten, hKey) <> _ ERROR_SUCCESS Then MsgBox "File extension not found." Exit Sub End If lStrLen = 0 Call RegQueryValue(hKey, "", "", lStrLen) strProgID = Space(lStrLen) Call RegQueryValue(hKey, "", strProgID, lStrLen) RegCloseKey hKey ' Get associated application strProgID = Left(strProgID, lStrLen - 1) & _ "\shell\open\command" If RegOpenKey(HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT, strProgID, hKey) <> _ ERROR_SUCCESS Then MsgBox "Open command key not found..." Exit Sub End If lStrLen = 0 Call RegQueryValue(hKey, "", "", lStrLen) strExe = Space(lStrLen) Call RegQueryValue(hKey, "", strExe, lStrLen) RegCloseKey hKey ' Launch application and pass its filename as a parameter lPos = InStr(1, strExe, " %1") If lPos > 0 Then _ strExe = Left(strExe, lPos) strExe = strExe & " " & strFile Call WinExec(strExe, SW_SHOWNORMAL) End Sub
Example 1-1 is a relatively long program, largely because of the intricacies of working with the Win32 API. We need, of course, to declare all registry-related functions with their parameters, as well as all constants that we intend to use. In addition, each registry access requires that we do the following:
Open the relevant registry key.
Determine the length of the string we want to retrieve.
Set the string buffer to the appropriate length.
Retrieve the registry value.
Adjust the string containing the registry value by removing its terminating null character.
Close the open registry key.
In contrast, the VB.NET program in Example
1-2 is considerably shorter
and simpler. In contrast to the numerous
1-1, the program only needs to use the
to indicate which namespaces it will access. Registry access is also significantly
simpler. The program relies on two classes: the shared Registry class, which
provides access to
HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT (HKCR), one of the
top-level registry keys; and the RegistryKey class, which represents a registry
key. As a result, once the program obtains a reference to HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT,
registry access consists of the following steps:
Open the appropriate subkey by calling the top-level key’s open method, passing it the path to the subkey to be opened.
Retrieve the newly opened key’s default value.
Close the open registry key.
Example 1-2. Launching an application using the .NET FCL
Option Strict On Imports System Imports Microsoft.Win32 Imports Microsoft.VisualBasic Public Module modMain Public Sub Main() Dim strExten, strProgID, strExe As String Dim oProgID, oOpenCmd As RegistryKey Dim strFile As String = InputBox("Enter Name of File to Open: ", _ "Open File", "") If strFile = "" Then Exit Sub ' Get file extension Dim iPos As Integer = InStrRev(strFile, ".") Try strExten = Mid(strFile, iPos) Catch MsgBox("Filename must include an extension.") Exit Sub End Try ' Get Programmatic Identifier Dim oHKCR As RegistryKey = Registry.ClassesRoot Try oProgID = oHKCR.OpenSubkey(strExten) strProgID = CStr(oProgID.GetValue(Nothing)) oProgID.Close() Catch MsgBox("File extension not found.") Exit Sub End Try ' Get associated application Try oOpenCmd = oHKCR.OpenSubkey(strProgID & _ "\shell\open\command") strExe = CStr(oOpenCmd.GetValue(Nothing)) oOpenCmd.Close() Catch MsgBox("Open command key not found...") Exit Sub End Try ' Launch application and pass its filename as a parameter iPos = InStr(1, strExe, " %1") If iPos > 0 Then _ strExe = Left(strExe, iPos) strExe = strExe & " " & strFile Call Shell(strExe, AppWinStyle.NormalFocus) End Sub End Module
In place of the function-based programming using the Win32 API, COM automation represented a clear step forward. COM was a more or less object-oriented technology that held out the promise of language independence; as long as a language understood the Component Object Model, it should be able to access and take advantage of COM components.
Example 1-3 shows a VB 6 program written using COM automation that, like the programs in Example 1-1 and Example 1-2, launches the application responsible for handling the data file whose name the user enters in a text box. Like the VB.NET program in Example 1-2, it is a short and fairly simple program that relies on the WScript object available from the Windows Script Host object model.
Example 1-3. Launching an application using COM automation
Option Explicit Private Sub Main() On Error Resume Next Dim lPos As Long Dim strFile As String, strExten As String Dim strProgID As String, strExe As String strFile = InputBox("Enter Name of File to Open: ", _ "Open File", "") If strFile = "" Then Exit Sub ' Get file extension lPos = InStrRev(strFile, ".") If lPos = 0 Then MsgBox "Filename must include an extension." Exit Sub Else strExten = Mid(strFile, lPos) End If ' Initialize WSH Shell object Dim oShell As WshShell Set oShell = New WshShell ' Get programmatic identifier strProgID = oShell.RegRead("HKCR\" & strExten & "\") If Err.Number <> 0 Then MsgBox "File extension not found." Exit Sub End If ' Get associated application strProgID = "HKCR\" & strProgID & "\shell\open\command\" strExe = oShell.RegRead(strProgID) If Err.Number <> 0 Then MsgBox "Open command key not found..." Exit Sub End If ' Launch application and pass it filename as a parameter lPos = InStr(1, strExe, " %1") If lPos > 0 Then _ strExe = Left(strExe, lPos) strExe = strExe & " " & strFile oShell.Run strExe, 5, True End Sub
Despite its substantial popularity, COM suffered from a number of limitations:
COM itself offered a model for binary code reuse; it did not offer a model for source code reuse. An implication of this is that, although COM offered interfaced-based inheritance (a feature that predominantly advanced programmers were interested in), it did not support code-based inheritance.
Although COM offered the promise of a language-independent architecture, reality often fell far short of the promise. The root of the problem was the fact that seamless interoperability with COM presupposed that each language was able to create and manipulate common automation-compatible data types. This, however, was not the case. As a result, although COM made some real advances in the area of language independence, it also had some real weaknesses.
COM was extremely complex, and for the most part only C++ programmers were able to work with COM directly. For VB programmers, the Visual Basic environment masked much of the complexity of COM. The inevitable result was that Visual Basic failed to give the developer full control over COM when it was needed, and many Visual Basic programmers often lacked sufficient familiarity with COM to take advantage even of those features that they were able to control.
In addition, COM did not offer an integrated class library comparable to the .NET FCL. Instead, the developers of each application or operating system service were free to implement whatever object model made sense to extend their application. As a result, there are major gaps in the functionality made available through COM automation, and there is not a good deal of consistency across object models.
The .NET platform and the .NET Framework Class Library were developed in an effort to address these weaknesses of COM.