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PowerBuilder: Article

Innovate or Die

Innovate or Die

PowerBuilder has almost entirely lost mind share. In order to reintroduce PowerBuilder to a new generation of developers, Sybase should treat it like a new product. When it was originally being developed, PowerSoft used the product internally and also partnered with clients, providing them with insight into what new features and improvements to existing features were needed. That same kind of insight is missing today. By partnering with key customers, Sybase can gain better knowledge about how the product is currently being used and which areas need improvement.

What we need is a group of companies/developers who are willing to commit to:

  • Use the not-yet-GA version of the product to develop a new advanced technology application to be released to production or a next-generation version of an existing production application with significant enhancements
  • Be ready to discuss their success using the product once it goes GA
Having users who are actually writing and attempting to release an application to production will ensure that the new features of the product are fully flushed out. It will also ensures that missing functionality is discovered and addressed before the product goes GA. If the beta test participants are simply throwing together small throw-away test applications, the new features never get tested fully or stressed in a production environment. Having users who have already written and deployed production applications using the new version will offer an incentive for the remainder of the customer base (and potential new customers) to try the new version.

Rather than focus on issues that have a high degree of popularity (requested often), focus on those that your "lead users" indicate are show stoppers for "on-the-edge" development. Those are the issues that the rest of your user base will eventually encounter. Addressing them when the lead users have hit them ensures that the majority of the user base is never affected by them. Expending effort on popular requests at the expense of completing functionality on the edge leads to the perception of the product as providing 80% solutions. Focusing on the "on-the-edge" users should also help ensure that the innovations are more distinctive, rather than incremental.

What we don't need is a committee or user group that prioritizes enhancements based on popularity. We need a group of highly committed "on-the-edge" companies or developers who can push the limits of what the product can do.

Not everybody is a seasoned PowerBuilder user, but a great deal of the documentation and samples are written as if they were. People who are new to the product need to be able to establish an early meaningful success with the product in order to form a good first impression.

The PowerBuilder Application Server Plugin is an excellent example of the issue. The technology is solid; the ease of use is currently problematic. If the latter is not corrected, the former will never be discovered. Part of this is accomplished by taking a fresh look at the PowerBuilder IDE and asking whether the steps are intuitive to new users or are overly complicated. For example, if I want to start a new application for the first time, why do I need to create a workspace, then a target, and then an initial window. There should be a shortcut process that creates all of those for me. I seem to remember that there used to be a new application wizard. That might have been removed, perhaps because it actually generated some sloppy code. Rather that removing it, perhaps it should have been enhanced instead.

That's just one example though. The key is making the new user as comfortable and productive with the product as soon as possible, but in ways that move out of the way of the experienced developer once he or she has mastered the product.

Sybase has (to me) a dizzying array of products, and it seems like every time I turn around they're announcing some new product. Drill down through the "Products and Solutions" section of their Web site and you'll find 23 products listed under "Information Management." Click on "Development and Integration" and you'll find 15. There's another 13 under the "Mobile and Wireless Applications" section. That's not 50+ products total; there's some duplication across the categories, but it is a lot of products. What it implies to me, though, is that Sybase is trying to be "all things to all people" rather than focusing on specific areas in which they can distinguish themselves.

People originally adopted PowerBuilder because the DataWindow did something that no other control on the market even came close to. People will only be attracted to PowerBuilder or remain loyal to it only if it continues to offer features that are unrivaled. As discussed earlier, PowerBuilder is losing that edge. Incremental innovations to the product will only slow the rate of defection; it will not win new clients or halt the loss of current ones. How does Sybase determine what new features would make PowerBuilder an "out of class" product rather than "best in class"?

Sybase's competitors aren't standing still. In order to remain competitive, the current development cycle needs to be speeded up. As an example, DataWindow.NET 2.0 was just released. However, the functionality it adds (the ability to directly use a DataStore/DataTable) was eclipsed before it was released by the introduction of the BindingSource class in the .NET Framework 2.0 (a more abstract class that isolates .NET data controls from the actual data source). At the current schedules, PowerBuilder 12 will be released with the capability to compile to .NET about the same time that Microsoft will be releasing the next generation of the .NET Framework and Visual Studio, which involve significant modifications in the user interface layer. Products that are only up to date with the last (not the current) version of the competing products aren't competitive.

Many of the often discussed enhancements are for improvements to PowerBuilder and are not related to differentiating PowerBuilder from other products in the same market niche. It is certainly important to overcome deficiencies (e.g., lack of XP style toolbars and menus). However, the addition of other "me-too" features such as Next Generation PowerScript are detrimental to the product overall if they are added at the expense of features such as a Rich Text Edit Style or Web Services as a DataWindow data source. What Sybase needs to focus on as it considers enhancements to PowerBuilder is the "core" rather than "context."

People use PowerBuilder largely because they want to use the DataWindow. To the degree that people use PocketBuilder, it's because they want to deploy the DataWindow to mobile clients. If people are interested in WebForms generation, it's so they can deploy the DataWindow in WebForms. And obviously, people who use DataWindow.NET are doing so because they want to use the DataWindow. If the DataWindow no longer offers significant advantages over other available data access controls, people will no longer have any incentive to use any of those products. And other controls are catching up quick. Microsoft's DataGridView control (introduced in the .NET Framework 2.0) offers advantages over the DataWindow in some areas (flexibility in data source) and is generally lacking only in the absence of a visual designer.

What Sybase needs to do now is determine what it is about PowerBuilder that distiguishes it from other development tools, and then focus on enhancements (and innovations) in those differentiating areas. In my estimation, that would involve (1) the DataWindow and (2) RAD development. I've already mentioned the DataWindow. The other area where PowerBuilder shines for me is in developer productivity. When Microsoft transformed Visual Studio into a .NET language, it lost of a lot of the RAD capability that had originally made it so popular. That's one of the major reasons you find a lot of developers (including a number of Microsoft MVPs) petitioning to bring "classic" VB back.

I'm not arguing against Sybase's efforts to make PowerBuilder a tool that can be used to develop .NET applications. I'm simply saying that in the process they can't do to it what Microsoft did to Visual Basic. That transition needs to be made in a way that makes PowerBuilder even more productive, not less productive. It needs to keep and even extend its 4GL capability, rather than devolving into a 3GL language like Visual Basic.NET has largely become.

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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Most Recent Comments
SS 08/07/06 01:11:32 PM EDT

I also agree with almost all the points made out by Bruce. I have been a PowerBuilder consultant for almost 9 years and have been working with it since version 4.0. For the most part, it has solely been used for maintaining and enhancing existing Client Server applications. This has been the case with all the clients I have been consulting for. Never have I encountered a client that has even considered powerbuilder for Web Development. It seems anything Web related has to be Java or Microsoft or even Cold Fusion, but not Powerbuilder. This has largely been due to the fact that Sybase was very late in reacting to new and emerging technologies i.e particularly distributed and web technologies. When technolgies like Java and ASP were getting popular during late 90's, Sybase was still resting on its client Server success. First Web PB was released, that was not well received even by seasoned Powerbuilder developers and was too cumbersome to learn. It was not too well documented and there was no Proper native scripting available like vbscript for ASP. Infact, one of the clients that had a larger client server application in PB 5.0 gave the option of rewriting some of the modules into a Web based one using either ASP or Web PB and the Powerbuilder developers themselves chose to use ASP as it was much easier to learn than Web PB. Ever since Powerbuilder has been purely branded as an obsolete Client Server only product and it has become extremely difficult to change this mindset from even existing Powerbuilder customers.Even a technology like XML has not been addressed up until version 9.0. Similarly .net support in the form of dw.net should have begun couple of years ago when there was no proper tool set in Visual studio for database development. Unfortunately, for Sybase when they have just made their entry into the .net world, Microsoft has already started closing the gap with their own native DataGridView control. From the above, it is very obvious as to why the product has degenerated from a Tool of choice to one that is struggling to survive.

Jim Schneider 07/14/06 12:44:06 PM EDT

I must agree with Bruce on every point that the article made.
I have worked as a Powerbuilder Consultant since version 3.0 and I have seen PowerBuilder go from a "Dev Tool of Choice" to a tool that is only being used for maintenance of an existing application. I feel that if Sybase truly wants to keep PB alive and being used they need to make the tool as stable as they can instead of adding tools onto a tool that is a great development tool but is not the most stable tool in the catalog.

SYS-CON India News Desk 06/28/06 01:05:32 PM EDT

PowerBuilder has almost entirely lost mind share. In order to reintroduce PowerBuilder to a new generation of developers, Sybase should treat it like a new product. When it was originally being developed, PowerSoft used the product internally and also partnered with clients, providing them with insight into what new features and improvements to existing features were needed. That same kind of insight is missing today. By partnering with key customers, Sybase can gain better knowledge about how the product is currently being used and which areas need improvement.