Hot In '97: In Java's WakeDevelopers yearning for the freedom of object standards may get locked in
By Rich Levin
Issue date: Jan. 6, 1997
The application development field is one of the fastest- changing areas of computing. The unstoppable and overshadowing rise of the World Wide Web has spawned entirely new categories of tools, languages, technologies, and frameworks.
Two-tier client-server technology proved, in large part, ill-suited for distributed computing and Net-centric applications. What began in 1996 as a necessary retooling and realignment of application development systems will explode in 1997, bombarding developers with products that could make tomorrow's distributed applications as easy to build as today's client-server programs.
At the center of it all will be Java, Sun Microsystems' Web-savvy programming language. If you believe the hype, Java is the best thing to happen to application development since rapid application development (RAD). Buttressing Java will be an expanding infrastructure of object interoperability standards and stable technologies that bridge Internet and desktop computing standards.
But don't applaud just yet. As progenitors of these new technologies promise to free corporate IS departments from the chains of platform-dependent computing, these same vendors are devising clever ways to maintain the industry's oldest business model: Lock 'em in and tie 'em down.
The next-gen eration ball and chain takes the form of application frameworks. It's a proven strategy. One example is the Microsoft Foundation Classes (MFC). Microsoft locked in millions of C++ developers with its operating-system-specific framework, which made it easier to build Windows programs. The lock: While C++ source code is technically portable across platforms, MFC works only on systems that support Microsoft Windows.
Expect vendors to play the same frame game with Java. While Java applications are independent of operating system APIs, corporate IS may find itself at the mercy of idiosyncratic, poorly maintained frameworks. The problem is not unlike struggling with buggy shrink-wrapped ActiveX controls or function libraries. "The minute you do anything with these programming facilities, you're locked in," says Jeffrey Morgenthal, an analyst with D.H. Brown Associates, a research firm in Port Chester, N.Y.
Methodologies are another IS lock for vendors. The number of methodologies increased drama tically in 1996; many are coupled to a framework or consulting model. "Last January, there were 19 identifiable object-oriented methodologies," says Michael Chonoles, chief of methodology for Lockheed Martin Advanced Concept Center in King of Prussia, Pa. "I just updated my research and came up with 45."
Still, frameworks and methodologies have some strong advantages. With the advent of component-based development, desktop RAD tools can better exploit the benefits of standardized frameworks. This is especially beneficial to organizations developing their own methodologies and frameworks; these organizations have until now been unable, in large part, to explicitly tie their component strategies to desktop development platforms.
Expect every major RAD tool to receive a facelift this year. For once, the surgery will be more than skin- deep. "Component wiring" technology quietly pioneered by IBM in its Visual Age line of development tools ( http://www.ibm.com ) is poised to become the dominant development metaphor. It will appear first in Java development tools from many vendors, then spill over into traditional client-server development environments.
Component wiring visualizes object-oriented development beyond simple property sheets or graphical user interface (GUI) builders, which today rely heavily on user-generated source code. With component wiring, developers simply draw a line, or "wire," between on-screen objects and those in a repository. The software automatically generates the application code based on the visual components that the developer connected.
Enterprise developers say component wiring finally puts the development in RAD. "The fact that you're always building a 'part' is the other big plus," says Mike Hudgins, a staff consultant and Visual Age developer with DST Systems, a financial services provider in Kansas City, Mo. "If you look at Visual Basic or something like that, even in its GUI environment, you're building something which is quasi-GUI, because you always end up typing something in."
Symantec's Visual Café is the first Java tool to deliver component wiring ( see story , p. 6A). Others will follow. "Symantec pushed wiring into the mainstream. You'll see it in the next versions of all the major products," says Evan Quinn, object technology analyst for International Data Corp., a market research firm in Framingham, Mass. "I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft was sitting there as we speak, dissecting Visual Café, because it's going to raise the bar, even for Microsoft."
But for many developers, moving their applications to Java is a task better left to automation. Of the estimated 3 million developers using RAD tools, only 1.3 million have experience with C++, from which the Java language is derived. For those who don't know C++, code conversion utilities represent the ideal way to gain access to the Java env ironment.
"The way it works is pretty neat," says David Querusio, project manager for Perot Systems Corp.'s I.N.C. group in Boston. "You can take your Visual Basic knowledge and just push a button, and there's your Java code. It's a great way to jump-start Java development."
I.N.C. helps organizations build enterprise intranet solutions. It uses Applet Designer, a $97 add-on from TVObjects Corp. ( http://www.tvobjects.com ) in Princeton, N.J., to convert Visual Basic code directly to Java.
Converters are also available from other software vendors. Black Dirt Software ( http://www.blackdirt.com ) in Goshen, N.Y., offers Visual Basic-to-Java 2.1, which supports Visual Basic 4.0 and Java 1.1. The product is written in Java, scans VB forms, and generates Java source code. Each VB component is mapped to a corresponding Java class, according to the company.
As Java code conversion takes off in 1997, it won't be limited to Visual Basic or Java. For example, Intermetrics Inc. ( http://www.inmet.com ) in Burlington, Mass., is testing AppletMagic, an Ada95 compiler that compiles to a Java Virtual Machine. The compiler inputs Ada95 source code and outputs Java byte code. The converted Ada applications run in any Java-compatible Web browser, according to company officials.
Also, Metamorphic Computing Corp. in New York ( http://www.metamorphic.com ) offers MCC, a $195 program that takes Visual Basic 3.0 applications and outputs 32-bit C++ code. MCC reportedly improves the performance of VB applications 100-fold.
"The technology to do this is finally mature," says IDC's Quinn. "To a large extent, the [cross-language] portability issues have been solved."
While developer interest in Java will accelerate the dispersal of code-conversion utilities, the of ferings will be short-lived. "Java is pulling this along, but this is a temporary phenomenon that will soon peak," says Quinn. "We'll soon be at the peak of the 'hotness' of this. People will keep these tools in their arsenals, but you only need to buy them once."
As developers gain experience with Java, they will increasingly build business applications that are independent of browsers, especially in the server environment. Analysts say this year will be the year Java escapes the browser and becomes a preferred language for building platform-specific applications. Its biggest use will be on the server, particularly for connecting Web servers to legacy data sources.
"Java has the performance to handle pure network connectivity," says Morgenthal of D.H. Brown. "Where it gets killed is numerical processing. It's a great data pump, but it's not that great at number crunching." The number crunching will come soon, Morgenthal says.
Helping Java tackle the back office will be two key f eatures of the 1.1 release: Remote Method Invocation (RMI) and JDBC (Java Database Connectivity). RMI functions like a remote procedure call, allowing Java objects to communicate on the same computer or over a network. JDBC is Sun Microsystems' answer to Microsoft's Open Database Connectivity, an abstract, uniform API for managing connectivity to SQL databases.
Maturing Java and Internet standards will beget more and better Web-development workbenches, life-cycle tools, and component integration products. Although last year saw a trickle of Web programming tools, the next 12 months will see vendors satisfying demand for Internet-savvy tools at every step of the development life cycle.
"Over the course of any week, a lot of people are working on a lot of components," says Michael Robertson, VP of development for 401k Forum, an asset management organization in San Francisco. "This is easier to manage in a client-server environment, because you're working with programmers. But on the Web, we have writers, artists, people working on content, and programmers, and we have to marry all of that with financial data that's always coming in."
Robertson uses Build-It, a $2,495 package from Wallop Software in Foster City, Calif. Build-It is one of the first products to integrate disparate components within an organization's Web-development effort. The product, which first shipped in November, provides content management and version control, automatically identifying components and managing their dependencies.
Other vendors will also get into the Web life-cycle act. StarBase Corp. ( http://www.starbasecorp.com ) in Irvine, Calif., offers a $549 version- control product called StarTeam 2.0, which was announced in December. StarTeam provides source-code management, such as check-in and check-out, that will work over the Internet. Finally, it provides a threaded, Lotus Notes-style conferencing system for developer communication. It also provide s version control of Web content, such as HTML pages and CGI (common gateway interface) scripts.
"All of these technologies support the notion of being able to develop cross-platform software," says Quinn. "That's nothing new, but there is much more demand for that now."
Visual Basic 5
When 1997 is over, the technology that will have had the greatest impact on corporate development will be a tool already on most developer's desks: Microsoft Visual Basic. Already, more than 100,000 developers have downloaded an early version of Visual Basic 5 Control Creation Edition ( http://www.microsoft.com/vbasic ) since it was posted to the Web on Oct. 28, say Microsoft officials.
The complete Visual Basic 5 suite, expected in March, will allow any client-server developer to build and reuse ActiveX controls and components. The effect could be staggering. Enterprise development teams will at last have a standardized, easy way of turning their applications into components and sharing them with other developers.
According to IDC's Quinn, these features, combined with Visual Basic's huge following, could make this granddaddy of all RAD tools the most popular in computing history. "In terms of raw numbers, VB5 will very quickly push Visual Basic over the top, making it more widely used than Cobol," says Quinn.
The addition of drop-dead-easy ActiveX development will, in short order, appear in nearly every major desktop RAD platform, including Borland's Delphi 97 and Powersoft's PowerBuilder 6, according to sources familiar with each company's plans. Home-brewed ActiveX controls will be everywhere, with developers able to mix and match components inside a company and across disciplines.
While the popularity and number of ActiveX controls is certain to explode, developers will continue to struggle with scaling ActiveX within the enterprise. "For ActiveX to move out of small projects, into areas that are more mission-critical, more transactional, they're going to need a repository. ActiveX needs to grow up and include metadata," says IDC's Quinn.
In the interim, efforts are under way at major object request broker (ORB) vendors to facilitate interoperability between OMG's Corba standard on the server and Microsoft's ActiveX object model on the desktop. The gap will continue to narrow between ActiveX's popularity and Corba's sophisticated distributed capabilities.
"There's synergy now," says Karen Baucher, an analyst with the Standish Group, a Dennis, Mass., consulting firm. "You can use ActiveX and Corba, and that's not a problem. All of the ORB vendors support ActiveX clients."
Increasingly, object middleware will support all of the major object models in use. IBM's Visual Age product, for example, supports Open Doc, ActiveX, Corba, and Java. Other vendors are expected to soon follow suit.
This promises to be one of the most exciting and competitive years in the histor y of application development.
With additional reporting by Andy Patrizio
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