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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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