BASIC-256: computer programming for (complete) beginners

Computers may be everywhere these days, but computer programming is still often seen in a very stereotypical way: it’s complicated, strictly for geeks only, not something of much use to anyone else.

The reality is very different. Anyone can learn the fundamentals of programming. It’s great for developing problem-solving skills, or just helping you understand how other applications work. And it’s really not that difficult, especially if you start with a simple language like the open source BASIC-256.

The program installs easily, and launches into a basic-looking text editor. There’s no initial guidance on what to do next, unfortunately, but click File > Open and you’ll find various programs in the Examples folder. These are very small and simple -- "hello world", basic graphics, animations and so on -- but you can view the code, run the program with a click, and see the results right away.

Or that’s the theory, at least. Text and graphics output is directed to separate windows, and these aren’t necessarily displayed by default, so you might find that running a program doesn’t appear to do anything at all. To fix this, click View, and make sure Edit Window, Text Window and Graphics Window are all selected.

BASIC-256 is a BASIC language interpreter, which means it’s all very interactive. The program mousedoodle.kbs, say, allows users to draw on the graphics window with the mouse, and the key code looks like this:

color black
circle mousex, mousey, 2

Even a total novice might realize that changing "black" to "red" will change the color of your drawing. This is extremely easy to do -- just edit the text accordingly -- and there’s no compilation required afterwards. Just click "Run" and try drawing again.

There’s more to learn. BASIC-256 offers For/ Next, Do/ Until looping, If/ Then/ Else and Case statements for conditional testing, with GoSub, Functions and GoTo for flow control. And there are some surprising extras, including commands to work with SQLite databases, or handle network communications.

This still isn’t a tool for anyone with previous development experience, as it’s just so limited. There’s no ability to call external code, no form designer, no objects, no output options beyond scrolling text and extremely basic graphics, and of course no ability to generate stand-alone programs.

Sample code like this won’t boot the program’s reputation amongst purists, either.

loop:
# do something
goto loop

BASIC-256 does provide a simple, unintimidating environment for total programming novices, though, perhaps middle or high-school students. Bundled examples and online tutorials make it easy to learn, and there’s a reasonable amount of functionality to explore. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to move elsewhere before you can produce anything useful.

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