Profile: Translating Cool Technology Into Revenue
Mainsoft has great .NET to Java technology that is tapping a market in enterprises.
- By Peter Varhol
Mainsoft, Inc. offers a unique technology that enables developers to write code in a .NET language using Visual Studio, then compile that code to Java bytecode and execute it on a Java virtual machine and application server. The product, Visual MainWin for J2EE, is a plug-in to Visual Studio that lets developers write applications in any .NET language, then dynamically convert the .NET IL into Java bytecode. The process of doing so is so seamless that you can even use the Visual Studio debugger on runtime Java code; Visual MainWin for J2EE converts the bytecode back to .NET IL to engage the debugger.
While no techie at heart would doubt that Mainsoft has some of the most impressive technology around, a more hardheaded business person might ask what could possibly be the practical use of such a product.
In response, CEO Yaacov Cohen describes both a vision of computing and a journey that ended up in a somewhat different place than originally intended. "In 2001, we set out to create a technology that made sense from the standpoint of the emerging concepts of service-oriented architecture (SOA). We determined that programming languages were going to be less critical than the ability to tie together different application components, and we set about devising a way to enable that."
In particular, Cohen was focused on decoupling the development choice from the production choice. "Many enterprises didn't want to be locked in to choices made during development," he noted. This was a notion that would grow stronger as the direction toward SOA became more established.
The original goal was to build a "universal virtual machine," a runtime that could execute any application on any underlying platform, said Cohen. There would likely be some limitations in practice, but enterprises need the production flexibility of running on the platform with the best management tools and highest performance. These characteristics might not automatically correlate well with the platform with the best development tools.
This was clearly an ambitious undertaking, and Cohen and the Mainsoft engineering team worked on the problem for two years. As a part of the development effort, one of the engineers wrote a .NET Intermediate Language (IL)-to-bytecode compiler, or translator. Cohen took this piece around to show to customers and investors. It turned out that there was more interest in this piece than in the conceived solution as a whole. The company went back and put more development effort into the IL-to-bytecode compiler, turning it into something that could be positioned as a standalone product.
Getting Down to Business
Mainsoft released this product, Visual MainWin for J2EE, Enterprise Edition, shortly thereafter. But at this point Cohen had to face the hard realities of selling software in enterprises. For a small company with an unproven technology, it can be difficult to get the attention of enterprise IT managers. So the next step was to generate recognition and enthusiasm for this Mainsoft product.
The company went about doing this with a derivation of the original product, called Visual MainWin for J2EE, Developer Edition, or Grasshopper. Grasshopper is a product that you can freely download from the Mainsoft Web site. It includes the Apache Tomcat servlet engine and the open source Mono implementation of the .NET Framework, providing a foundation for ASP.NET, ADO.NET, XML, Web services, and .NET server-side runtime services. Developers can use .NET language and Visual Studio skills to develop, debug, and deploy server and Web applications from within the Visual Studio development environment, and run applications natively on the J2EE platform.
According to Cohen, there are now 15,000 registered users of Grasshopper, along with an active community of developers, many of whom act as advocates for expanded use of the technology. As a result, Grasshopper served to bring recognition to Mainsoft from the development community, and also provided success stories for use in enterprise sales and marketing situations. However, it had only limited success in extending the reach of the company into enterprise IT shops and providing access to IT executives. That required a significant enterprise-direct sales force and time to establish relationships within enterprises. Despite a successful company track record that included an initial product release in 1993, this was both expensive and time-consuming.
The second part of the company strategy was to find an avenue for faster and less-expensive access into enterprises. It did this through a partnership with IBM in which Mainsoft generates leads that can then be followed up on by IBM sales representatives, who in many cases might already be familiar with the customers and their needs. "Partnering with IBM gave us access," said Cohen. And it clearly supported IBM's Java direction, enabling the company to offer Microsoft shops the ability to use familiar development tools while deploying on Java.
Last, Mainsoft needed a strategy that would establish the company as a viable and growing standalone business. Cohen is pinning that goal on the Visual MainWin for J2EE, Portal Edition. The Portal Edition provides .NET extensions to IBM WebSphere Portal so IBM customers can run ASP.NET applications natively on WebSphere Portal.
This makes it possible for any enterprise looking for a portal solution to immediately translate existing ASP.NET Web applications to Java to run in the WebSphere Portal. Those enterprises can also continue writing Web applications in Visual Studio and deploying them to either Microsoft IIS or WebSphere Portal, depending on their needs and specific circumstances.
Developers find Mainsoft's .NET to Java compilation a unique and exciting technology. The message that you can use Microsoft development tools while deploying to Java is a powerful one. However, the challenge was to translate that excitement into revenue to create a profitable and growing company.
Yaacov Cohen and Mainsoft believe that they have found the path to do so, and results thus far are encouraging. Many small software companies find it difficult to make the jump from cool technology to a viable business, but Mainsoft might have found the formula.
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Peter Varhol is a principal at Technology Strategy Research LLC, an industry analysis and consulting firm.