In-Depth

A race to the Java gold cup

The Java programming language promised easier application development with its "write-once, run-anywhere" claim. While there is some question as to whether Java has lived up to that promise, a handful of Java tools do offer simplicity in application development through simple (and enhanced) source code editing.

Among those available for less than $1,000 are JBuilder from Borland International Inc., Scotts Valley, Calif., Visual J++ from Microsoft Corp., Visual Café for Java from Symantec Corp., Cupertino, Calif., and Java WorkShop from Sun Microsystems Inc. Available at a slightly higher price is PowerJ Enterprise from Sybase Inc., Emeryville, Calif. All these firms are household names in development. How good are their new tools?

Each of the five tools includes a debugger, command-line coding and a Java compiler. But after that, the differences among the products become apparent. Most of them include JDK 1.1 support. Microsoft's and Sybase's products include C++ integration. Sybase and Borland are aiming their tools toward enterprise development -- Sybase as its product name implies and Borland through its JBuilder Client/Server Suite.

The major issues for all the tools, however, appear to be ease of use and scalability of the final product. "Those are issues for Java itself," noted analyst Michael Barnes with the Hurwitz Group Inc., Framingham, Mass. "It's a question of the immaturity of the language, not the tools. Tool vendors are in a good position because they pace the development of the language on the tools themselves."

According to Evan Quinn, director of Java research for International Data Corp., Mountain View, Calif., ease of use is not really an issue, "but scalability is," he said. "It was a very significant issue before JDK 1.1," the latest Java standard from Sun. "It's imperative for scalability to be addressed," Quinn said. He added that IDC will be closely tracking these products. "We think their success or lack thereof will be key indicators regarding how Java's going to do in business."

The nitty-gritty

Borland's JBuilder family of visual development tools lets developers create platform-independent applications using Java. JBuilder's scalable, component-based environment is designed for all levels of information network development. In addition, it gives developers an open architecture to incorporate third-party tools, add-ins and JavaBean components.

Daiwa Securities America, a securities brokerage firm in New York City, chose JBuilder while it was still in beta. "It was so much better than anything out there," said Jeff Borror, director of information technology. "It's an industrial strength product with a control library and a lightning fast compiler. It gave us a whole suite of Java tools for serious Java development." Daiwa is also using Borland's DataGateway for Java database connection.

JBuilder's open system attracted Borror to the product. "We can customize Borland's development environment with our own themes," he said. While the product provides wizards for creating JavaBeans and deploying applications, the disadvantage is Java itself, said Borror. "Java's still a very young product, so there's still some rough edges. Anything that uses Java is resource-intensive."

Despite that, Borror noted one major strength of the product -- a large majority of it is written in Java. "I think philosophically that's very correct. It also means Borland is very close to portability to other platforms," he said.

Sun's Java Workshop is also written in Java and supports JDK 1.1. It features cross-platform capabilities and includes a Visual Java GUI Builder, an integrated editor-centric user model, a Java compiler, an advanced debugger and a project manager. In addition, the product features a Java profiler, which lets developers identify bottlenecks in their code and tune those bottlenecks for better performance.

Net-Temps Inc., a Web-based recruiting service in Tyngsboro, Mass., chose Java Workshop mainly for its cross-platform capabilities, according to development manager Steve Paulovich. "Our shop is mainly Unix-based on the internal end and all of our desktops have some form of Windows on them," he explained. Java Workshop was the easiest way to keep everyone happy.

The company considered Symantec's product as well, but since all of Net-Temps' heavy-duty servers are Sun-based, it opted to stay with Sun. "As developers on Java, we knew that [Sun's] products would be 100% compatible with the Java standard," Paulovich noted.

In addition, Paulovich got something for which he did not bargain. "The GUI development tools that came with Java Workshop were far superior to any others we saw," he said. "Our experience has been nothing but good. We're able to meet our development schedules and have everything cross-platform. It's as seamless as possible."

Symantec's Visual Café for Java 2.0 is now available in versions for Web development, professional development and database development and also supports JDK 1.1. It offers JavaBean support and a JFC library. The professional and database editions also include native compilation and incremental debugging. The Web edition features the Visual Café for Java IDE, a visual page HTML authoring tool and Netscape Communicator 4.0.

David Boydston, principal consultant for Solutions Consulting in Santa Barbara, Calif., chose Visual Café for Java mainly for its intuitiveness, he said. He uses it mostly as a front end for development. "It's the most Visual Basic-like front end," he noted.

Boydston selected Symantec's product before Borland and IBM's were available. He looked at Sun's Java WorkShop but found it rather slow and not very intuitive. Microsoft's J++ was just a compiler, he asserted. "It didn't provide any intuitive forms layout capability," noted Boydston.

Solutions Consulting has since evaluated Borland's JBuilder, which has one feature the company really likes -- the ability to change code automatically. If a developer does a forms layout in Visual Café, Boydston said, it generates code. Any changes in that code have to be made by hand. Then the tool has to go back through the code when it is loaded to make sure it is reformatted. "The way Borland's implemented that (process) is a little smarter than Café," Boydston added.

Although Solutions Consulting likes the automatic code changing capability, it is not enough for the company to change tools at this point. "We might give up a little bit of parsing capability," Boydston commented. "But there is nothing else on the market yet that has given us enough impetus to switch."

The major advantages of Visual Café, according to Boydston, are reliability, consistency and the ability to create an executable for Windows. Another plus is its debugging capability -- the ability to change code while the program is running. "You don't have to shut down and restart the application," Boydston said.

The only improvement Boydston would like to see is in the interface to the file system. "It could be better in terms of remembering where things are. When you work on multiple projects and open a dialog box or a file, Visual Café always seems to put you back in the same place, a default location," he said. "It would be nice if it would remember where you were for a project instead of having a single mindset."

Toward enterprise development

Sybase's PowerJ is geared more toward enterprise Java application development. It features database capabilities and integrates with Sybase Jaguar CTS for building business applications on the Web. The product also offers more than 240 pure Java components and hooks into popular version control systems. A Web Application Target provides a way to integrate editing, debugging and publishing of all aspects of Web application development. A query component and Sybase JConnect for JDBC are also included.

Primal Systems, Newport Beach, Calif., a provider of business applications to the telecommunications industry, chose PowerJ for its enterprise capabilities. "We absolutely had to have an enterprise tool to develop with," explained president John Faltys. "We wanted a similar interface to a client/server interface. Certainly we were comfortable with Powersoft as well." Primal Systems has been a PowerBuilder shop "forever," said Executive Vice President Joe Simrell. "As we move our applications to being Web-enabled, we're looking at future releases of those (applications) being in Java. PowerJ is just the natural extension."

Primal Systems also considered products from SilverStream and Symantec. "Symantec at the time was probably the best applet tool but not the best enterprise tool," Faltys noted. "SilverStream wasn't mature enough. PowerJ was more mature than that and comes from an enterprise viewpoint."

One of the biggest advantages of PowerJ, Faltys said, is a thin client. "In an Internet-type application, you want to make the client as thin as possible -- getting the logic off the client and putting it onto another tier, usually the middle tier. If we used Visual Café, we'd have a fat applet because it's two tiers and we'd put that logic in the middle tier." Another PowerJ advantage, Faltys asserted, is the ability to distribute logic to whichever tier makes sense.

The numbers game

Market research firm IDC sees Microsoft's Visual J++ leading the pack from a shipment perspective, followed closely by Symantec's Visual Café for Java. There were approximately a half million Java development seats in 1997, and IDC's Quinn believes Visual J++ shipped more than 100,000 of those. And Visual Café came pretty close to shipping 100,000, he said. "That's new licenses; that's not just upgrades," he pointed out.

Visual J++ allows developers to integrate the power of Java with existing systems, such as client/server networks and databases. The product boasts a fast Java compiler and includes a customizable editor.

The low-end Java tools race is "pretty much neck-and-neck between Microsoft and Symantec," Quinn continued. "Symantec led in 1996, so it started off with a larger installed base than Microsoft in 1997. In terms of actual overall usage, J++ has the lead over all the other products. But when looking at the architectural perspective, most people are using Visual J++ to target Windows. In that usage arena, we think the wider, platform-independent universe has a slight lead over the Windows-specific universe," Quinn said.

Gary Hughes, president of multimedia and network consulting firm Stargate Video Systems in Boston, noted some drawbacks to Visual J++. Hughes used Visual J++ on several development projects. He said while it offered an advantage in speed, it did not fully support JDK 1.1. "Microsoft's goal is to make J++ work really well to be a tool that develops really good Windows applications. But it is not in Microsoft's direct interest to make that easy," he said. "You get a slight conflict of interest if cross-platform development is what you're looking for."

Chuck Durham, senior vice president for Global Internet Associates, Lancaster, Pa., voiced the same complaint. He used Visual J++ on a project for New Holland North America Inc., an agricultural and construction equipment maker in New Holland, Pa. "Microsoft has not been very fast at supporting the JDK 1.1 standard with RMI," Durham said. "They seem to be pushing database connectivity" with COM objects like ADO and RDO, "which at this time works better but is only supported on the Internet Explorer browser," Durham noted. Microsoft's general database connectivity is through standard JDBC. The company is using COM/ActiveX components for database connections.

Durham noted some advantages of Visual J++, including performance, integration with existing ActiveX components, more system functions than Java permits inherently and the same IDE for a current Windows developer using Microsoft's Visual C or Visual InterDev. But despite these advantages, Durham added, the lack of JDK 1.1 support "leads you to evaluate alternative tools to do cross-platform applications."

Microsoft refutes these complaints, however, saying that Visual J++ fully supports JDK 1.1, but not out of the box. "You can freely download SDK 2.0 for Java so you get full JDK 1.1 support minus JNI," said Bill Dunlap, product manager for Visual J++. The product offers JDK 1.02 support out of the box, but to enable JDK 1.1 support, developers must download the Microsoft SDK for Java, free of charge, from www.microsoft.com/java and plug it into the Visual J++ compiler.

Facing the challenges

Despite this problem, IDC's Quinn said the real challenge for Microsoft is to impress upon the buyer community that Windows NT is continuing to move upscale. "The server side of Java cuts some of the momentum out of NT," he said. "Java gives life to all the platforms that Microsoft hopes to overcome with NT, so they need to be even better at delivering NT without being nerds about it."

Symantec faces a challenge of more legitimate competition, Quinn said. "All their competitors come with a pretty significant installed base," putting Symantec at a disadvantage. The company did, however, have a time-to-market advantage over everyone else. "Symantec has gotten to where they are, in some ways, being the most visionary, the most aggressive and taking some risks," Quinn said.

Borland needs to continue what it has been doing for the past year or so: moving away from Microsoft, Quinn continued. "Borland recognized that they couldn't go ahead and compete with Microsoft directly in all their products, so they changed platforms."

The Hurwitz Group's Barnes said he believes Borland's goal is to move further into the enterprise. To do that sufficiently, he added, Borland needs "to understand the needs of the enterprise and be able to support those needs and application integration."

"Sybase," IDC's Quinn said, "has taken the least religious view of all these companies and said, 'Okay, we're not pro-Windows, we're not pro-Java, we're pro-customer. We'll support both Windows and Java.'" Quinn said he believes Sybase's is a strategy many customers will find appealing.

As far as Sun, the Java originator, is concerned, Quinn said, "it needs to act a little bit more conservative, a little more mature. There's a certain amount of doubt whether Sun internally has all its ducks in a row."

Barnes is looking forward to seeing Sun solve this whole Java issue and figure out how "to profit from Java without antagonizing its partners," the companies it actually competes with. "Sun needs to walk a fine line between leveraging Java to be able to get the benefits of Java while at the same time being able to maintain Java as an industry standard."

So the race continues. Who will win? Keep watching the low-end Java tools market for the latest results. But keep in mind what Barnes at the Hurwitz Group said, "There's room for more than one to survive."

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