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What Have You Done for Me Lately...

What Have You Done for Me Lately...

It's no secret that lots of folks who are using PowerBuilder, and a great deal of the applications currently in production built in it, are using older versions. I don't know the exact statistics, but it's not uncommon to find people who never migrated beyond 6.5. Obviously, anybody using a version that old is doing straight client/server development. PowerBuilder didn't include serious distributed or Web development features until version 7.0. So the question is this: Why aren't these client/server people upgrading to the latest version?

The answer can be found in a question that is frequently heard just after some of the latest major releases of PowerBuilder: "What about us client/server developers?" Apparently a lot of PowerBuilder developers don't believe that the enhancements that have been made in the product over the last several years were of sufficient benefit to them to warrant an upgrade.

From the perspective of developers doing only client/server development, the major feature added with PowerBuilder 7.0 was the redesign of the IDE (a change that a number of developers were not comfortable with). PowerBuilder 8.0 brought additional IDE changes (including the workspace/targets concept), structured exception handling, and the SCC interface and PBNative source control. For traditional client/server developers, PowerBuilder 9.0 brought PBNI, SaveAs PDF, and OrcaScript. And the feature of PB10 that will probably affect client/server developers the most is Unicode support and the ability to integrate PowerDesigner into the PowerBuilder IDE. In addition, there have been improvements in the database interfaces, additions to the PowerScript functions, and other smaller improvements.

Apparently, those features have not been compelling enough for many developers to continue to migrate. I can think of one of my own clients who only migrated to PB7 to get Windows 2000 support, and then only migrated to PB8 to get support for Oracle's fail-over and password expiration capability. What that illustrates is that many developers are now asking: "What added features will the new version give my customer that can justify their paying for the upgrade?" In other words, what is the return on investment for my customer? While many of the modifications in the last several versions have helped developer productivity, such benefits are hard to quantify. What developers need to have now in order to support the migration are enhanced features that directly benefit the end customer.

I think one area that is ripe for improvement is PowerBuilder's GUI support. Microsoft has continued to innovate in the GUI arena, particularly in Windows XP and the latest Office series. PowerBuilder hasn't stayed abreast of those changes. I was at a client site recently where they are standardized on Windows XP. They launched one of their applications, and I knew the minute the first screen opened that it was written in PowerBuilder. While that warmed the cockles of my heart, it shouldn't be quite so obvious which development tool was used to write the product, particularly when it is the rather archaic GUI features that give it away.

I've come up with my list of enhanced GUI features I think might help compel developers to migrate. They include:

Toolbars

  • Additional image formats, up through XP (24-bit icons with 8-bit masks and sizes up to 128x128)
  • End-user customization built in: tear off toolbar items, and drag-and-drop toolbar items
  • Ability to add controls: edit masks, dropdown lists, and "dropdown windows" (allow me to specify a window that appears for the drop down)
Menus
  • Bitmaps in front of menu items
  • Intelligent menus (auto hide rarely used items)
  • Dropdown menu item delay time and animations
Windows
  • MDI tabs - where layered MDI sheets take on a tab and tabpage effect (we could use those in the IDE too)
  • Support for docking, pinning, and auto-hide
DataWindows
  • Hierarchical display in a DataWindow (which among other things would allow us to create state of the art property grid controls)
That's my list anyway. A few years ago when folks suggested that GUI upgrades were highly needed, I scoffed. I thought that most developers wanted features that actually accomplished something (functionality) rather than features that made the product look better (form). Perhaps there's more competition now and form matters more. Perhaps we're just so far behind that form has become important.

Or maybe I'm wrong. I'd love to hear what you have to say about it. If you're currently using PowerBuilder 7 or earlier, let me know why you haven't migrated and what features you would need to see before you would.

Until next month.

More Stories By Bruce Armstrong

Bruce Armstrong is a development lead with Integrated Data Services (www.get-integrated.com). A charter member of TeamSybase, he has been using PowerBuilder since version 1.0.B. He was a contributing author to SYS-CON's PowerBuilder 4.0 Secrets of the Masters and the editor of SAMs' PowerBuilder 9: Advanced Client/Server Development.

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