Are 4GLs history?

Once touted as a major productivity enhancement, 4GLs insulated developers from complex plumbing and cross-platform issues. They were also a paradise for developers tired of tedious, low-level coding. What could have replaced these young giants of enterprise computing?

While the theories are many, the short answer is that Java happened. The new technology touted by Mountain View, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems Inc. has been promoted as a new standard language for cross-platform development. Has the write-once-run-anywhere language hurt the once-lucrative 4GL market?

"Hurt is not the right word, but 'change' is," said Dick Ramsdell, president of Passport Corp., Paramus, N.J. "Most people are of the opinion that Java is what is needed to do Internet things. When you do things at the 4GL level and don't involve Java in some way they will have trouble seeing how it will work with the Internet."

The Java language and the related Enterprise Java- Bean (EJB) component standard have been the focus of a major vendor effort. As a result, 3GL Java tools appear to offer the component benefits, productivity gains and cross-platform support that 4GLs were striving to achieve. Meanwhile, other 3GLs have profited from enhancements in their development environments.

Passport Corp. is just one of the companies affected by a general decline in 4GL interest. Passport's promising tool of the same name seemed to garner some popularity in the industry. As with many 4GL vendors, Passport began shifting its tools toward the Internet in 1997 as the new medium's popularity began to grow. IntRprise 1.2 was the company's answer to the Internet. Released late last year, the tool allowed Passport developers to port their applications to the Web. "All of the things we could do before, we could now do on the Internet," Ramsdell said of IntRprise. "But at the time, we found few people building enterprise-level Web applications."

With revenue of less than $10 million, Passport focuses mainly on working with its customer base to create innovative applications in hopes of using the work as an example of the tool's power and capabilities. "We're leveraging our tools on behalf of our customers and showing how they can be used on their own," said Ramsdell.

Passport is not the only firm affected, however. Forté Software Inc., Oakland, Calif., has long been known as one of the leaders in the modern 4GL era. While the firm just turned in a profitable quarter ($332,000 for the quarter ending September 30) after a string of losers, its stock has dropped from a high of almost $80 in late 1995 to approximately $5 on November 11, 1998.

Dynasty Technologies Inc., Redwood Shores, Calif., has also struggled, though Vice President of Marketing Geoff Roach does not consider his company's tool to be a 4GL. "The 4GL market is dead," Roach said. "Dynasty is not a 4GL, but gets lumped in there with the rest of them." [This positioning derives from the fact that Dynasty generates actual C++ code and does not rely on any proprietary runtime, unlike true 4GLs such as Forté.]

Looking ahead, the future is not rosy for the 4GL market. International Data Corp. (IDC), Framingham, Mass., predicts that the 4GL/RAD market will grow from $3.24 billion last year to $3.62 billion in 2001 -- a growth rate of only 2.3%. To put that in perspective, note that IDC has estimated that worldwide I/T spending from 1997 to 2002 will grow at 9.7% (CAGR). The specific numbers actually look worse if RAD tool numbers are subtracted from the equation. Under that circumstance, 4GL market growth would probably be in the red, said Steve Garone, program director for application development tools at IDC.

"By forecasting low to negative growth, we're not implying that vendors are going out of business," warned Garone. "They are moving to a new paradigm with a focus toward the Internet and a strong focus toward Java as a standard."

Shifting gears

Theories abound on why the 4GL market has suffered so greatly over the past year. Meyar Sheik is vice president of worldwide marketing and alliances at New York City-based SuperNova Inc. The firm had been a traditional RAD/4GL tool vendor until it recently began leveraging its strengths into the component-based development space. Sheik gave three reasons why the 4GL market is shrinking, none of them having anything to do with Java:

  • The year 2000 issue. "As a tools vendor, the year 2000 is more competition and a threat than Java. Companies are more preoccupied with the problem and are throwing a lot of resources at it; new development projects are giving way."
  • Euro currency. "It is not just a European problem. For banks and the financial industries in this country, 25% of their business is global."
  • Shortage of developers and programmers. "Whether it be Cobol, C or Java, it is a problem. We are based here and in Europe, and see the problem everywhere. It's not a U.S. thing, a West Coast thing or an East Coast thing."

While the year 2000 and Euro currency conversion efforts have a hard deadline, which is causing corporate development dollars to move away from new project development, IDC's Garone believes the move away from 4GL tools is purely market pull. He sees two technologies exerting greater influence. The first is client/server, with the Internet completing the one-two knockout punch. "The Internet reinforces the need for a middle tier to service clients and interface to back-end databases and applications," Garone said. "The need is even greater for this Internet when it involves an extranet outside the company."

Garone also believes that the increased drive toward component-based development has hurt the 4GL market. Companies are looking to build and deploy applications across networks, and the standard for doing so is using components. "The standard [for component development] looks to be based on Java for the application logic, and client-side logic and Corba for server plumbing," he said.

Expanding on Garone's theory that the Internet as a technology is creating market pull away from 4GLs, we can see two sub-technologies that are part of the problem: Java (obviously) and the refreshed application server market. Java, by design, is already cross-platform, thereby eliminating the need for a 4GL tool to take care of the various platform differences. That is a simple explanation, however.

Overnight Java

Java, by virtue of its critical mass, has become a standard language almost overnight. Just about every major player in the software development industry has pledged support to Java either by supporting the language in their platforms or by supplying tools for building Java applications. Theoretically, a Java application built in Inprise Corp.'s JBuilder 2.0 can be edited with Sybase Corp.'s PowerJ or Symantec Corp.'s Visual Café. Though some believe in the notion of "learn one 4GL, you've learned them all, "4GLs are proprietary in nature. For example, one cannot take an application built with Forté and modify it with Compuware's Uniface.

In the 4GL world, developers are stuck with the engine that comes with their tool of choice. If performance is lacking, they need to wait for a new release and hope the problem is solved. With Java, the performance of the compiler engine is not as big an issue. Big vendors are focused on making the compilers run fast. For instance, if Sun comes out with a faster compiler than Symantec, developers can choose to use the faster Sun compiler instead, or vice versa. "Currently, we use the Symantec compiler [in SilverStream]," said David Dewan, vice president of marketing for SilverStream Software Inc., Burlington, Mass. "But at some point we may get a better deal from another compiler vendor. With Java, we can just take one out and plug in the new one. That's one of the benefits of standards."

"Companies are trying not to be trapped with proprietary [4GLs]," said Jon Williams, group marketing manager for the development environment controls group at Sun. "4GLs have good productivity, but are 100% proprietary. Java standardization has helped drive the strong change."

The value of a 4GL over a 3GL has typically been an issue of productivity. Fourth-generation language vendors argue that their tools save time and money by increasing developer productivity. And 4GL-based developers are free to concentrate on business logic and the meat of an application, rather than the mundane tasks of writing code to talk to operating systems and other devices, as this is automatically taken care of by the environment. In some cases, 4GLs also allow for the participation of business analysts in the development process. Because the task of coding is more abstract, and in some cases English-like, such analysts do not get bogged down in the syntax of computer languages.

Online travel discounter Travac Tours and Charters Inc., Orlando, Fla., realized a big boost in productivity when it used Prolifics from New York City-based Prolifics Corp. to build its public travel agent Web site (, said Travac CEO John Deacon. Travac needed a three-tier solution to help keep up with the peaks of demand in its $50 million business. "We were not sure how successful this e-commerce thing was going to be," Deacon said. "The three-tier nature of Prolifics allows us to expand according to demand."

Hand-coding a site with C or C++ would have "taken a zillion years to do," said Deacon. Instead, the company, which had been using JAM from New York City-based Jyacc Inc., internally chose Prolifics because it was 60% JAM. [Prolifics is a spin-off of Jyacc and uses similar technology.] Using a staff of three, Deacon and company constructed in about five months. Deacon attributed the quick turnaround time to the 4GL, which kept his programmer focused on business logic, not low-level coding.

"We have one of those 'old' programmers who has done Fortran [and other similar languages], and he always asks 'why?'. He used to hammer out C code when there was a problem," Deacon said. "You don't do that in today's environment with a visual paradigm."

In the past, 4GLs also provided the benefits of visual and component-based development. While components were typically limited to the environment in which they were created, they were components nonetheless and could be used in other projects. This saved developers time and effort by not having to reinvent the wheel each time a new project was started.

"The most successful implementation of a visual paradigm was the spreadsheet," said Charles Jolissaint, chief technology officer and co-founder of Edify Corp., Santa Clara, Calif. "We've taken that metaphor to the next level for process and application development."

Edify's Electronic Workforce product lets developers build self-service applications. The tool uses a spreadsheet-like grid for laying out applications. Developers drag and drop components out of a repository onto the grid to create applications. Said Jolissaint, "We do iconic programming --an icon is worth a thousand lines of code."

However, Java and some of its related standards -- most notably JavaBeans and EJB -- have opened up the component approach to more traditional languages. Such components can be reused not only across projects, but across tools as well. And this phenomenon is not only related to Java. C++, the object-oriented predecessor of Java, also supports a well-defined component architecture.

In conjunction with components and open architectures, general-purpose application servers have also had some effect on the 4GL market. Many 4GLs are, in effect, application servers. The tool used to build the application does not spit out actual compiled code that can be understood by the machine. Instead it creates "pseudo code" which, in turn, is processed by the 4GL's runtime. The runtime also takes care of the interactions between applications, middleware and other devices; in essence, it is an application server.

But today's application servers are more open. Many support C++ and Java applications, while still taking care of the majority of plumbing and integration tasks. San Jose, Calif.-based BEA Systems Inc.'s Tengah Java-based application server (formerly WebLogic) is tool-agnostic, meaning one can use Symantec Visual Café to write code that will run on the Tengah server. With EJBs thrown into the mix, middle-tier application logic adhering to the standard should also be transportable across server platforms. This is not possible with the more proprietary 4GL engines and tools, which rely on their own syntax and language constructs.

"Now there are viable industry-standard runtimes available: CICS, Orbix, M3, Tuxedo," Dynasty's Roach said. "People want to buy the middleware, so it does not make sense to buy a mediocre runtime and tools from one vendor when you can buy best of breed."

While 3GL languages such as C++, Java and the like have long been considered archaic and difficult to program, they are not disappearing any time soon. Their apparent resurgence can be attributed in part to the number of improved integrated development environments (IDEs) that surround C++ and the like. They provide 4GL-like developer productivity.

"Once you get an IDE wrapped around a 3GL, the argument is that you've got a good environment with debuggers and good components," explained Rick Pleczko, vice president of marketing for the application life-cycle division of Platinum Technologies Inc., Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. "That's where the line starts to blur [between 3GLs and 4GLs]; you get productivity right out of the box."

Microsoft Corp.'s Visual Studio 6.0 release exemplifies this blurring of the line. The software giant has wrapped its Visual C++, Visual J++ and Visual Basic languages with a number of services that aid the developer when coding and debugging. Via the Component Object Model (COM), objects can be shared across the entire set of tools in the Visual Studio suite. There are 4,800 different commercial components available to developers for the platform, according to Microsoft officials.

Scott Billings, SQL Compass product manager at Platinum, also sees a recent surge in the popularity of packaged applications as part of the reason companies are again favoring the 3GL market. "Some shops main task is to customize and integrate the packages," Billings explained. "4GLs have little support for that task."

Free agency

Other factors observers say contribute to the move away from 4GLs are training and people issues. Developers, like professional athletes, are always looking to better their skills in an effort to advance. Programmers do not want to learn proprietary languages -- a skill that may not be needed when exploring the valuable free agent market. "As developers and organizations are choosing a language, they are cognizant of the fact that technology is changing rapidly," said Lloyd Arrow, Visual Studio product manager at Microsoft. "While 4GLs do things well, the underlying technology is changing so fast, people don't want to be locked in."

From a company perspective, training can be expensive when it comes to getting developers up to speed on 4GL tools. Go into any local bookstore (or surf to your favorite online bookseller) and you can find hundreds of titles dealing with the ins and outs of Java. Try that with Forté or Cognos' PowerHouse 4GL environment.

"The workforce issue is always a challenging one ... there is definitely an advantage that Java is taught in college and that the new crop of programmers coming up have that training," said Jeff Weil, director of product strategy and development at Progress Corp., Bedford, Mass. "We're putting programs in place to get universities and local stores to train programmers."

Ed Horst, Forté's vice president of marketing, believes the training issue is overblown. "People will be in for a surprise when they use Java for distributed applications; there is a big learning component," Horst said. He argues that people do not distinguish learning distributed computing and learning Forté as two separate issues. Horst added that the company just trained its 10,000th Forté developer. "Coming up to speed on Forté is the same as coming up to form with SQL from Oracle," he noted.

Fighting the good fight

Needless to say, 4GL vendors are not going to give up without a fight. They realize that open standards are a hot issue and that Java is at the forefront of many a developer's mind. For example, Progress and Sybase have both added Java tools to their portfolios. Many others are building in mechanisms that will import third-party components into their environments using wrapping techniques.

With each new release, Forté spends 30% to 40% of its effort on maintaining and upgrading adapters to third-party solutions, such as ERP packages, said Horst. "This way, when people choose to use Forté, they don't have to worry about the interfaces," he said. "They don't have to open the code up ... we can mitigate the problem for them."

Progress is working toward "future-proofing" its customers' existing Progress applications. A new enterprise development suite due out early next year combines a new version of Progress with the company's WebSpeed Internet development tool. Code-named "Skywalker," the new tool will help companies migrate Progress 4GL applications to Progress' Universal Application Architecture (UAA) model. UAA allows Progress developers to integrate Java, Beans, Corba and HTML into their applications.

Compuware's Uniface product has also added support for multiple component models, including Corba, JavaBeans, COM/DCOM and Java Remote Method Invocation (RMI). "We're also taking a look at Enterprise JavaBeans, which seem to have promise, especially on the server side," said Dirk Gorter, director of product marketing for Uniface.

Cognos Inc., Burlington, Mass., recently completed a year 2000 enhanced version of its 4GL offering, PowerHouse. The latest version lets PowerHouse developers correct two-digit date problems by making changes to their syntax dictionary, rather than having to change every instance of a two-digit date. In May, the company released PowerHouse Web.

Despite the efforts of vendors, companies still seem to be moving away from the 4GL arena to more open pastures. While 4GLs still offer better productivity in comparison to a 4GL, the tradeoffs of cost, openness and performance have organizations and developers moving back to the world of 3GLs.

The Cognet Group, a small consultancy based in Libertyville, Ill., has always been a Forté shop but sees that market slowing and the demand for Java growing, according to Vice President Jim Zimmerman. While his company recently completed a major project for Detroit Edison using the Forté environment, a new CIO at the utility would like to convert to more standard desktops and back-end systems. "We do more Forté work now, but we see a large Java practice growing here in the near future," Zimmerman said. "Especially for those companies like Detroit Edison that want to go to more open standards and frameworks for building enterprise applications."

Zimmerman believes the notion of using a 4GL is something that will wane over the next couple of years as people decide they want to use Java. "The fact that Java is a 3GL will not impact people's decisions," Zimmerman said. "4GL is not an important concept."

Zimmerman also points to the growing sector of open, middle-tier services. Developers no longer have to rely on proprietary 4GL tools to insulate them from the plumbing layer of distributed computing. EJBs, application servers and the like are offering the same solution using open standards.

Where 4GLs have maturity built in, the Java/open standards arena has the push of some of the major players. It is only a matter of time before Java matures. While some have the critical mass behind them to stay viable for a number of years, it appears as if the salad days of 4GL are over.