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PowerBuilder History - How Did It Evolve?

A Canadian Perspective with an Aussi Twist

To that end, a Microsoft engineer from New Hampshire came to Ottawa. He was extremely helpful and asked about what I was going to do next. I told him that the next phase was to review and recommend GUI development tools for the three top recommended RDBMS products. This is when the guy floored me; he said that we should call this new company called PowerSoft and get PowerBuilder because all his developer buddies at Redmond were using PowerBuilder (certainly not what the MS salesman was saying). I called PS, but they said I could not get an evaluation copy, I had to buy it - but I could return it if I didn't like it (if any of you have worked for the U.S. or Canadian governments, you know what kind of stupid remark that would be). But they told me the history of PB so far and about hiring an X-development team from a DBMS company in Boston who was bought out by CA. I thanked the salesperson, hung up, hit the redial button, and asked for Dave Litwack, where I was immediately put through - to my pleasant surprise. Dave said, "qaStaH nuq? Chris!" (Klingon for "What's happening Chris?" www.kli.org/tlh/phrases.html) as the response and the next day a copy of PB was on my desk (thanks again Dave).

I passed the release (version 0.8 Alpha, which came on two diskettes at the time) to my co-developers and they pounded at it for three days and took it for a spin with the top RDBMSs we had in place. PB's DataWindow was like a "breath of fresh air" when it came to data handling and SQL generation compared to any tool we had touched thus far. The speed was also very close to C and made SQLWindows look like molasses in January (Canadian perspective - eh).

PB became the premier product of the top three development tools recommended to the Canadian Government. Revenue Canada used the product to build the GST (Government Sales Tax) processing system, which captures and tracks all GST Tax returns even to this day - talk about mission critical. Other departments soon dove in and, today, most Canadian Government departments use PB for their mission-critical systems: coming into Canada your license plate is scanned on your car (checked with a DB managed by PB) and/or your passport is scanned (all done with PB); if your plane lands on a Canadian runway (billed by PB working in concert with the radar system - 24x7 operations), if you have an Old Age pension (front end all done in PB - released January 2002), log a case with the Supreme Court or use their Web site: http://www.scc-csc.gc.ca, open a case with the Tax Court of Canada, register a firearm, deploy UN troops, get a security clearance with DND or PWGSC, participate in a Federal Election, and many, many more!

In the early 1990s SQLWindows and a new product - Delphi - took a run at PB from the performance side. SQLWindows added C generation and Delphi came like that out of the box. This made SQLWindows as fast as PB, but Delphi blew PB away in looping operations. The DataWindow - 90% C and 10% assembler - still blew the other products away (I have a great story how last year on VB.net versus PB 9 at a Government department using MS-SQLServer, PB blew VB away by 4000% better performance - but getting back to our history lesson...).

Dave, Bill Rabkin ("the" original PB technical evangelist), and I had discussions about compilers for many years. We often remarked how efficient the Waterloo, Ontario, guys were at building top-of-the line compiler technology. At the same time Gupta (SQLWindows) started shipping its own RDBMS (SQLBase) with its own product. PowerSoft wanted to do the same to match the competition. It came as no surprise to me when they started shipping the WatCom SQL RDBMS with PB (I think that was release 2). Like Victor Kiam ("I liked it so much I bought the company"), that is exactly what PowerSoft did for release 3. But, a hidden gem appeared to PB right after that, when Dave said to the C compiler guys at WatCom, "Could you take PB's P-Code and generate pure C (PB at that time had moved from C to C++). The WatCom people said: "Sure," and had it working within a week. This really made PB "toast" Delphi in performance and with the DataWindow - leaving them in the dust (and it still does today).

At the same time, Bill Gates came to Ottawa to deliver a keynote address to the Canadian Government. I met Bill and he informed me (in 1994) of some interesting facts: MS uses the WatCom C compiler for the VB JET engine, some of MS-Access, and all of FoxPro for Windows. MS could not convert the products to use their own C compiler as it was 400 time slower than WatCom's and the user community would not stand for the performance loss. A friend of mine who was hired out of Toronto to work in Redmond told me that Bill wanted VB to be fully OO and he had a prototype (1993-4), but upon demonstrating the product, key business users would not accept the necessity to completely rewrite the code (like VB 6 to 7 [.NET] programmers have now) in order to properly derive full OO benefits. They told MS that they were better off with PowerBuilder. Recently, many VB 7 programmers here in Ottawa have told me that they're recommending that their departments go to PowerBuilder as it is much more OO friendly and the learning curve is substantially lower (interesting comments?).

Episode IV - The Attack of the Corporate Clones
In the mid 1990s Gupta was crushed by Oracle's multiple attempts to do a hostile takeover. Oracle wanted to compete against PB, but PowerSoft was untouchable at that time due to its financial stability. So they went after SQLWindows to replace their development suite (SQL Forms, etc.). Even today, any student of mine who has developed in SQL Forms and then sees PB, he or she drops it like a hot potato. Here's a recent example: I worked on a new system that was developed by two Oracle developers on an Oracle DB. They worked for nine months trying to build this new system and could not even get a prototype done. I worked on the system for three months with PB 7/8 and had the full system working within three months. This blew away the Oracle developers even on their own DBMS! The application is currently running under PB 10.2 after being ported a few months ago.

Dave Litwack and the PowerSoft executives were very nervous about Oracle's actions (shades of CA déjà vu), and wanted to band together with a larger company to make sure another CA would not happen to them. Sybase had helped port the SQLServer DBMS over to the MS-NT Platform and knew of PB's prowess (even today 63% of all Oracle DBMS sites use PB as the development tool), but lacked any good GUI development tool. The two companies merged (and brought WatCom along) to better complement their technologies into one company offering. The WatCom Company was hence renamed to iAnyWhere Solutions.

Dave Litwack and Kim Sheffield left Sybase shortly after that to develop a really "cool" product known as SiverStream (http://jdj.sys-con.com/read/36628.htm). Again, with the key concepts of an open IDE, integrated tools, work with any DBMS, central Data Dictionary, ease of deployment to production, RAD prototyping, service objects, etc. Sybase would be wise to not lose sight of these key aspects of a good IDE. In recent days, Microsoft has finally learned this expensive lesson (it took them over a decade) with Visual Studio 2005. I used the product and became certified for this new Java tool in late 1998-99. A few Canadian Federal Government agencies started using it and we also developed a nice Web portal in SilverStream. One of the key features that Kim added to SS was a DataWindow-like object that supported a TreeView look and feel (PB 10.5 eat your heart out - this was running in 1999-2000). The components could be used for a native Java application or through a Web browser. All these features placed SS far ahead of PowerBuilder and at that time PowerJ. Looking at this in hindsight, it's too bad John Chen let these people go instead of continuing their work on PB and now the new "WorkSpace" product. Sybase lost important momentum in the PB area by also focusing only on Java in the early 2000 years.

More Stories By Chris Pollach

Chris Pollach is a Senior Consultant with over 30 years experience in Systems and Software Analysis, Development, Maintenance and Technical Support, mainly in the areas of GUI Design, MS-Windows Programming, Java / .NET Programming, Wireless, Application / Web Server Design & Programming, Object Oriented Development Tools and Methodologies, Data Base, Data Communications and Network application development. He has participated in numerous technical, planning and management roles, as well as consulted and educated in these fields for a diverse clientele. He is also the owner of “Software Tool & Die Inc.” a company dedicated to provide custom software and education solutions on Object Oriented business systems.

As an educator, Chris is certified to teach PowerBuilder (first in Canada), MS-SQLServer, Sybase’s Enterprise Application Studio and EAServer integrated application/web development environment. He is former Certified SilverStream developer (CSSD) and current Certified PowerBuilder Developer – Associate / Professional (CPD-P) as well as a Certified Sybase Tools Instructor (CSI).

Chris has written numerous articles in various popular personal computer magazines, newsletters and is the author of the PowerGuide and PowerExpert products as well as the STD Foundation Classes. Currently, Chris has developed a Foundation Class library for Sybase's PocketBuilder, SAP's PowerBulder and EAServer products and now Appeon Web & mobile products that integrates JSP or ASP web development, Section 508 / CLF web standards and mobile applications. A new Web Service framework has also been released for IIs to support PowerBuilder based web service NVUO's!

Chris recently became a 2nd Degree Black in the TaeKwonDo martial art and has developed a Martial Art multimedia study guide using the Component-One “Doc2Help” and Sybase PowerBuilder products. Since the fall of 2004 he became a TaeKwonDo instructor for the City of Ottawa’s Goulbourn program. He has also been certified with the World TaeKwonDo Federation (February 2005 - 1st Dan and October 2008 - 2nd Dan).

Chris was awarded the Sybase “Innovation and Achievement” award for 2005 as voted for by the International Sybase User Group (ISUG). This award was presented for innovations to the PocketBuilder mobile development product, contributions to the PowerBuilder News groups and support of the Ottawa Sybase User Group.

To round his management and leadership skills, Chris is the former president of the Kiwanis Club of Goulbourn and still volunteers his time with the service clubs in his area. He is also the coordinator of the Ottawa Sybase User group and a certified NAUI scuba instructor. For the last three years, Chris has been voted onto the ISUG Board of Directors and holds the position of "Director - North American User Groups".

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Most Recent Comments
Ahmad Ghosheh 07/11/08 01:29:20 PM EDT

I was a Dbase and Clipper programmer in the 80s. When Windows came online and GUI application became the new trend PB filled this void with a fantastic product. I was with PB since 1.0 and still here at 11. I never used a development environment I liked better than PB and don't expect to find one either. The very best for sure. No to mention you can still make very very good money doing PB code.

Harvey Kravis 06/24/08 03:15:27 PM EDT

Thanks so much for writing this article. It brought back wonderful memories for me, and I have a few corrections to make. I think it is worth mentioning that PowerSoft was originally called Computer Solutions. The name change took place after the venture capitalists decided that PowerSoft needed to get out of the applications business. I was one of the 14 people on the development team that was sold to Dun & Bradstreet Software. I'm not sure where those references to Vax came from. We never did anything with Vax. We were an HP3000 shop, hence the relationship with HP. I was actually in some of the original design meetings with Litwack, Dewan, and Sheffield, but when they realized I knew nothing about Windows I got kicked out. Oh what could have been. Anyway, I'm still using PB today, and have used every version from 1 - 11, and even used the pre-beta version of 1.0.

Gopi Nathan 06/04/08 05:42:06 AM EDT

Powerbuilder history has some date errors. Cullinet was taken over by CA in 1989 and not in 1986 as the article says. Also doubtful whether the ADS/PC prototype was made in 1985...must be much later.

Otherwise the article was a fantastic one!

Judah Holstein 04/16/08 07:18:46 AM EDT

Hi Chris!
Thanks for that great story! I started with PB in 1992 and we still use it in many of our products today. Every time I try another technology for GUI development, I always regret it, and like Michael Corleone I get sucked back in! :)

I didn't know that MS was using Watcom for it's products back in the day. I always remember Watcom's "claim to fame" as being the compiler used for the DOOM game... I guess PowerSoft people had a leg up on MS people!

Perhaps with the recent erosion of the Microsoft market they will gain another leg up by providing Linux and Mac OS/X support!

Kevin Kelly 08/11/07 02:07:06 PM EDT

Hey Chris, great story! I began using PB v1.0 in October 1992. I believe it was one of the first C/S projects in the Washington DC metro area. Microsoft was also interested in our success because we were using MS SQL Server and Lan Manager. So, they gave me lots of pre-release goodies (Workgroup for Windows for one) to ensure our success.
Funny story how I stumbled on to PowerBuilder. I was working at Cable & Wireless Communications at the time and very unhappy because the two micro-systems I was maintaining were rolled up under the mainframe management team. It wasn’t that fun so I turned in my resignation. But before I new it, I was being summoned by a new IT Director under the marketing division. Well, he convinced me to stay and head up a client server project, converting a mainframe sales commission application to the PC. It was my choice of tools as long as I could back up by decision with solid research. PC Week had done a very positive article on PowerBuilder, so I called in Microsoft, and Powersoft to see how well their tools worked together, and that’s when I was told about the PB apps running in Redmond. I also spoke to American Airlines, Compaq, and Standard Commercial. All of them gave two-thumbs-up! But you know what sold me on PB v1.0 over MS Visual Basic, and Object Vision (C based) at the time, the debugger. PB’s debugger was great. Having a MS C background, the debugger was very impressive and it sold me.
In April 1993 I was invited to a private executive breakfast, of about 18, where Dave was going to talk about Powersoft’s newest version, soon to be released PB v3.0, and the future. He sat at my table. He hadn't been home, for a while because he was showing off v3.0. The PB Conference had just finished and Dave was pumped. It was a very exciting time. One month later I went out on my own as an independent consultant. I received my PB Certification to teach and Powersoft had me booked out 4 months in advance. I became very successful and continued teaching/consulting up until v7.0 spring 2000. In 1997, most of the herd was heading to SilverStream land, so I followed.
I guess my most rewarding experience was working in Houston between 1993-1995 where I met a lot of key players. During that time Alex Whitney was given the green light to develop the PFC. It was a great time, and I felt very fortunate to know some of the people that I feel shaped the industry.
I really miss the using PB and I'd love to get back on a project using it. It was by far the highlight of my IT career.
Best of Luck!

SYS-CON India News Desk 01/08/06 04:50:27 PM EST

I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity.

SYS-CON Italy News Desk 12/26/05 03:16:06 PM EST

I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity.

SYS-CON Australia News Desk 12/26/05 02:45:11 PM EST

I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity.

SYS-CON Germany News Desk 10/17/05 02:48:25 PM EDT

PowerBuilder History - A Canadian Perspective With An Aussi Twist. I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity.

PBDJ News Desk 10/17/05 02:24:45 PM EDT

PowerBuilder History - A Canadian Perspective With An Aussi Twist. I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity.

PBDJ News Desk 10/17/05 01:49:33 PM EDT

PowerBuilder History - A Canadian Perspective With An Aussi Twist. I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity.

Mike Collins 10/17/05 01:43:55 PM EDT

PB was a great experience in my career. I was introduced to PB after a large Knowledgeware project where we faced porting the project to MicroFocus Cobol or PB3. At the time PB was the on-ramp to Windows programming for thousands of Cobol\CICS mainframe developers. Everything was about Client-Server in the early 90's.

I'll always remember the 1996 Orlando Conference. I think 5000 attended, sessions were packed to the back wall. PFC was the talk of the community.

Steve Benfield 09/21/05 01:09:35 PM EDT

Chris--thank you so much for this walk down memory lane. PowerBuilder was very good to me and I loved using it and being involved in it. I was the first editor-in-chief of the PBDJ and it was a wild and crazy time back in the early 90s at PB shot out like a rocket. Because of PB I was able to travel the world teaching and consulting and I have fond memories of the whole PB community. The DataWindow still rocks.

After PB I moved to SilverStream and eventually worked for Dave Litwack as CTO. He is truly an app dev visionary and has a real feel for getting "real apps" built vs. theory.

As for Kim, he's doing what he loves and he's having a great time.

Thanks again for sharing!

--Steve Benfield

Yakov Fain 09/20/05 02:15:12 PM EDT

Can you please provide a reference to the research that "stated that 60% of all U.S. companies that started a Java project last year canned it"

Thanks

Bernard Dy 09/12/05 01:47:25 PM EDT

Interesting...I'd like to hear more about your PB9 vs. VB.NET story! And also maybe from Kim Sheffield about why he moved to .NET.

PBDJ News Desk 09/12/05 09:53:48 AM EDT

PowerBuilder History. I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity.