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PowerBuilder Is Dead

PowerBuilder Is Dead

PowerBuilder is dead. I first heard that statement when I joined Sybase back in 1996, nearly a decade ago.

I had been hired to specialize in two of their hottest new Web development products, namely GainMomentum and web.SQL.... You remember those, right? Hmmmmm.

Here we are nearly a decade later and I sit in awe watching just one of our PowerBuilder/EAF development teams demonstrate a rich data-aware Web application they built in less time then most "modern" development projects spend putting together automated build environments and arguing the advantages of design patterns. I take a pause and think to myself, "PowerBuilder is dead?"

I have to admit I am a bit of an odd duck. I think I might hold the distinction of being just about the only person to have spoken at both JavaOne and Microsoft TechEd. I've seen the birth, and watched the death, of a dizzying array of development products and trends. Each was the sure-fire replacement of the legacy 4GL RAD environment. In the end, however, they have all missed the mark.

The 4GL RAD revolution wasn't fueled by the invention of a new approach to modeling or new language constructs. What fueled the revolution was simply productivity, and an understanding that what drives businesses to build business applications is to make data manipulation and display simple and fast. If something is going to be a viable alternative to the 4GL product genre such as PowerBuilder, it's going to have to truly deliver in a few simple but powerful ways.

First, it needs to make data binding dead simple. Let me say that again. It needs to make data binding dead simple. It should let developers discover data and bind that data to forms and tables just as easily as the DataWindow does. Contrary to popular belief, that does not mean providing developers with some "seven-layer burrito" of data abstraction layers and frameworks. It means "point and click."

I've heard the big boy analysts say that most Web development projects spend 80% of their time on data binding. Given the lack of sophistication of most Web technologies today, it frankly does not surprise me. PowerBuilder developers spend about 5% of their time doing data binding. Until a tool can claim the same level of productivity, it will never fully replace the 4GLs.

Next, it has to do the dummy work for me. I hate writing a hundred forms and data objects and mock objects and controller servlets and action classes and insert next big object du jour... These tools are supposed to make my life easier, not harder. Right? Any tool that wants to compete is going to have to be smart about building these objects for me...and in such a way that I can then edit and tweak where needed...just like what PowerBuilder allows me to do.

Finally these tools have to realize all of this data, all of these business rules, and all of these objects are irrelevant without a way to build serious application user interfaces. If you ever want to see a Web developer's eyes jump out of his head, tell him you need a treeview and a tab pane. Oh, and you want to update multiple queries in multiple panes and update them all at the same time and in the same transaction! Bring a towel. It's guaranteed someone is going to have to clean up when someone's head explodes. Applications have windows, frames, tabs, and trees, and they all depend on data views and they all depend on transactions. That's real life. Oh, and for good measure, I don't want to litter my whole application with this junk too. I want it componentized rather than copied into every page and I want it extensible.

What all of these self-proclaimed PowerBuilder "replacements" have forgotten is that productivity is king. They and, to a large degree, the developer community have become more enamored with elegance and design than function and delivery. Businesses chose PowerBuilder to get stuff done and make their businesses more successful. That was the only metric that mattered then and that is the only metric that matters now. That's the metric by which any competing tool must be judged and, unfortunately for most available technologies today, that is where they fail.

Today, PowerBuilder is still able to deliver on these key requirements of true rapid application development in both client/server as well as Web development with the Web DataWindow. And with future emphasis on .NET SmartClients and mobile development with PocketBuilder, PowerBuilder is anything but dead.

More Stories By Dave Wolf

Dave Wolf is a Vice President of Cynergy Systems, Inc. Prior to joining Cynergy, he held senior management positions at several major software firms including Sybase and Microsoft, where he was responsible for the development, marketing and sales of several enterprise class software products. A sought-after public speaker, he has presented at major technology conferences such as JavaOne, AJAXWorld and Microsoft TechEd. At Cynergy, he oversees consulting operations worldwide and spends most of his time interacting directly with the field and working in every time zone but his own.

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Most Recent Comments
chirag 06/02/06 08:53:38 AM EDT

Great to know that people like you understand the power,effectiveness of Powerbuilder.
It's a true RAD compared to any other tool or JAVA.
Keep pouring these kind of articles, this keeps me going.
But god knows what Sybase is doing to market it in ASIA.
I am working in PB(PFC) for last 5 years, but it's hard to make clients understand it's advantages.
I think Sybase should market it effectively.
PB is still best for Enterprise Level DataBase Apps.

Yakov Fain 04/13/06 04:16:56 PM EDT

It's interesting, but most of the former PB developers (including myself) keep saying the same thing: nothing beats DW. After PB, I spent years in Java, which I like, but I also noticed that it's changed the way I look at things. During my PB career, I was accustomed to the fact that a lot of work is done for you under the hood by the tool itself. In my Java life segment, I do not feel comfortable if I do not know exactly HOW it's being done.

These days I enjoy experimenting with Adobe Flex 2, and I believe that PB crowd should go there too. This is also component-based, event-driven environment, and PB-Flex transition should be painless.

John Farlow 04/13/06 03:20:40 PM EDT

I started using PB 2.0 back in 1993 and still work in Powerbuilder, but in my current job the PB app is being rewritten in C#. I program in C#/dot.net also and I admit that nothing has improved on Powerbuilder's datawindow...it's still a pain with Microsoft tools to do a simple query. But I don't see a lot of Powerbuilder jobs anywhere and I don't know any shops that are doing new development in Powerbuilder. Sybase has a perception issue and unless they can combat Microsoft, Powerbuilder will slowly rot as a tool.

S B Gogia 03/23/06 05:06:20 AM EST

I have been working on Powerbuilder since 1996. And I am a doctor - who went into Development as a hobby but became a full fledged programmer without any formal training. And that was possible only because of powerbuilder - Visual Basic and other apps I tried and just gave up as useless. Maybe other development apps are better now but my Friends have told me that Nothing has come close as far as the datawindow is concerned. Only problem for me is to learn how to upgrade to the web

S B Gogia 03/23/06 05:05:50 AM EST

I have been working on Powerbuilder since 1996. And I am a doctor - who went into Development as a hobby but became a full fledged programmer without any formal training. And that was possible only because of powerbuilder - Visual Basic and other apps I tried and just gave up as useless. Maybe other development apps are better now but my Friends have told me that Nothing has come close as far as the datawindow is concerned. Only problem for me is to learn how to upgrade to the web

mehul joshi 01/21/06 06:44:05 PM EST

I read your articel and have been using PB since version 4.0 but I'll have to say the way PB has lost market to other technologies it is not good for developers as well as Sybase. I'm fan of datawindow but I dont see that many websites or books or resources available for PB as you will have for Visual Studio.Net or Java. So is PB dead ? well it is not dead but it is on death bed.

Bernard Dy 08/08/05 09:58:53 PM EDT

Yakov,

I won't deny that Java is a great and beautiful language, if hard to master due to the tremendous APIs and libraries available. But the PB article is correct...there are simply some things the datawindow can do that blow away anything you'll see in .Net or Java. If you need to connect to an enterprise level database and do any work of note with that database, and you are not using the PB datawindow, then you are spending more money, time, and effort than you need to be. No other object I've encountered is as flexible as the DW, nor has such built in support for databases and SQL, and comes with nice reporting, filtering, and grouping abilities, plus handy concurrency support, all in one. I've studied a bit of ADO.NET and while it works, it just seems so clumsy compared to the DW.

If Sybase can successfully migrate that power to datawindow.net, then there is hope the datawindow can continue on in the .net or Java worlds, because it's becoming clear that Sybase is not interested in continuing to invest in and compete with MS and Sun in the compiler space. In this regard, I'd agree with the "deep coma" comment. Sybase never seemed to do as well with PB as they could have. What a shame. The guy who sits across the aisle from me a .Net guy that used to do PB, and he is constantly shaking his head about the amount of work his team has to go through to do things the DW could do in half the effort.

I don't know that client/server is dead...it's just changing. They said mainframes would be dead too, and the market for them is actually increasing (maybe not much fun to write code on, but being centralized, stable, and secure is not too shabby, people are starting to realize). Elsewhere on sys-con.com, you can watch video of an old PB hand, Steve Benfield, talking about how the client/server concept is sort of making a comeback through AJAX and rich client GUIs on the browser.

Personally, I hope for a world where there are so many programs in so many languages that we'll all be working for a long time! And from a career point of view, it's not that all PB developers aren't willing to learn new tech...it's also because many companies aren't big on employee development, most companies don't like spending money except on the higher-ups, and not all business scenarios require using the latest and greatest. But that's an article for a different day.

Yakov Fain 08/01/05 12:16:30 PM EDT

I've been doing PB from '93 to '98 and loved it.
After that I swithced to Java and never regreted it. My wife is still doing PB and I have an idea what's going on there. In my opinion, PB is not dead but is in a deep coma.

Datawindow is really a great component, but client-server technology does not seem to be the right way to go. You can take an old car and slowly replacing its parts with the better ones, but it's still an old car...

From the career point of view, PB may not be a bad choice if you are not willing to learn new technologies all the time. There are plenty of PB applications in production, and someone will have to support them for many years to come.
You should be able to make a decent living with PB for quite a long time.

Elba Stevenson 08/01/05 11:14:44 AM EDT

Dave is right ont the mark. How many times have I heard the same thing. I find the biggest problem with new programmers / developers that have a total lack of the basic foundation.

PBDJ News Desk 07/20/05 12:11:24 PM EDT

PowerBuilder is dead. I first heard that statement when I joined Sybase back in 1996, nearly a decade ago.