New focus on tools

BEA has begun to tout its new line of WebLogic Workshop tools,which is a change for a company that avoided making tools in the past. Toward the end of the client/server computing era, the close relationship of tools and runtime software was not particularly popular, especially in the Java camp. BEA was aware of this, and adjusted its planning. So when Symantec Corp. looked to spin off its VisualCafe Java development environment in December 1999, BEA took interest. But BEA eventually decided to fund (along with investment house Warburg, Pincus) further VisualCafe marketing as a separate entity under the aegis of WebGain Inc.

»1. Behind BEA's tool bet
»2. New focus on tools
»3. Double-Edged blessings
»4. Reliability key
»5. Colorado county user
»6. Analyst gauges tool move
»7. NCFE opts for WebLogic

BEA recently had to write down the remaining share of that investment. Not long thereafter, WebGain came under stress, looked to sell assets, layed off staff and virtually "went dark."

For BEA watchers, it can be surmised that a decision was made to go ahead with tools, but the bet was that it was better to push an alternative to established, technical Java IDEs.

Tools are now viewed as intrinsic to a fully formed platform, and something BEA could best manage in-house.

"They've gotten into the business of tools," said Gartner's Natis. "That was something they avoided for years. They thought it was risky.

"BEA has been the leader in the J2EE and Java engineering space, but most of its development has been in large-scale, high-end systems," added Natis. "The goal is to expand to a mass-market developer. The firm is more opportunistic in its objectives."

To establish a unique tool presence, BEA again turned to acquisition. It bet that it could re-create the WebLogic magic, this time with WebLogic Workshop, its version of software initially developed by start-up Crossgain.

Crossgain entered the Internet era as a 50-person company with great expectations to provide hosted application services. Using Linux and XML, covered considerably by the mainstream press, manned by a group of key Microsoft expatriates, planning to do a slew of Web-enabled transactions and messaging, competing for mindshare with other upstart ASPs - it was all heady.

Crossgain CEO Nielsen was certainly a star in the Microsoft developer business, having cut his teeth on VB and Access projects and then launching MSDN, the online developer network that brought to light the idea of a Web-based developer community. (Other vendors launched significant Web communities as well. For its part, BEA made great hay using the Internet era phenomenon of the free developers' download.) Nielsen, for one, admits he was driven to head Crossgain, at least in part, to see how successful he could be outside of the Microsoft orbit.

When the economy soured, Nielsen and other Crossgain managers took only a little time to decide to get acquired and to work on a smaller set of problems. Deep pockets helped, too. Nielsen notes that in 2001, BEA's revenue was greater than Microsoft's was when he joined it in 1988.

Workshop enters the fray Today, Nielsen reports to Alfred Chuang, and serves as chief marketing officer responsible for BEA's marketing strategy, operations and developer services. He focuses on the WebLogic Workshop framework tools and runtime.

"People love Java. It's become enterprise-quality software," said Nielsen. "But issues come up. It is still pretty hard. You have to be a professionally committed programmer to get the most out of it.

"There's a whole level of developers that don't have the time to get into the nitty gritty," he proclaimed.

Who are these people? Do we rightly assume Nielsen's comments describe developers trying to get home from work at least in time for a kid's evening ball game? "They want to have a life," he responded by way of explanation.

While Java has greatly enriched computing, the effort has been very labor-intensive, suggest Nielsen and Dietzen. "Java players don't have a rich history in ease of use," noted Dietzen. "To make the next wave happen, there has to be a change in approach. That is our big investment."

Said Nielsen: "At Crossgain, we thought, 'Let's figure out how we can make [Java] accessible to the next level of developer.' That is the approach BEA is trying to carry forward."

While that means bringing the ease of use of Access or Visual Basic to bear, Nielsen does think some things should be done differently than at Microsoft. "We learned a lot with Access and VB. One of the big mistakes was that if you were an Access programmer and you hit a wall, and you then handed over the job to a C++ programmer, that person had to throw out what you did." There needs to be a "ramp" between different levels of programmers, he explained.

"We made [WebLogic Workshop] so that at any time, you can turn it over to a professional Java developer," he noted.

Lifting layers WebLogic Workshop, said Chuang, "promises to speed the productivity of enterprise applications and Web services for the nine-plus-million application developers out there." His faith in the need for a Workshop-style solution has been buttressed by visits with customers.

"CIOs are very interested in Workshop," Chuang told reporters during a teleconference call this spring. He noted that the interest so far is primarily in big companies with large development teams. Among the early adopters BEA cites for Workshop are Autodesk, McGraw Hill and UAL Loyalty Services.

"The fundamental value is not the tool," noted Chuang. "It's really the framework that's built on top of our Web services infrastructure."

People have to lift the layer of complexity away from the application programmer, explained Chuang; thus, the move to a Microsoft-style programming paradigm.

"The people we're targeting are not Java or C programmers. The people we are targeting are Cobol developers - people working with very old back-office technologies," he said.

Looking forward, Chuang expects BEA will have to link Workshop with enterprise design and development tools like Rational's and Borland's to fit in with the work styles in many large shops. In fact, endorsements of Workshop by those companies have already been announced.

Building community Java was, in many ways, a developer phenomenon. Much like open-source Linux, a community of interest grew up around Java, and development managers often did not have much choice but to stand up and take notice. IBM's developerWorks and other sites were online gathering places that further helped drive software platforms, fostering community and creating groundswells of interest.

BEA tasted some online success with its Web marketing arm for WebLogic, but it hopes to do more with WebLogic Workshop and the BEA dev2dev site; it sees the creation of an online community as key to its overall marketing process. This could be a long shot, say some observers. Much anti-Microsoft sentiment came to rally around the Java flag, and it is not clear if Workshop can benefit from the same type of sentiment.

Heading the effort to evangelize Workshop is Diana Reid, director, BEA developer marketing, and another of BEA's MSDN-Microsoft-Redmond expatriates.

Articles, code, discussion threads and more will be used to grow the WebLogic Workshop brand, said Reid. "We are using the Web to build a developer community," she said, indicating that a subscription-based program is in the works for later this year.

Reid echoes Chuang's and others' sentiments that the goal is not just to capture the hearts and minds of Java developers. "We're not just interested in the J2EE 'guy,'" said Reid.

Trainers and ISVs will also continue to be a target of marketing efforts, she noted. "We are looking at helping our third-party trainers build out their training programs," she indicated. Reid also suggested that many Visual Basic-oriented systems integrators are looking for ways to get into the Java market, and BEA hopes to exploit this opening. NEXT»

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