BEA aims to broaden its developer pool

As competition for software developers heats up, the company hopes to simplify the development of Web services with its new Java-based programming tool.

7 min read
BEA Systems is taking a page out of Microsoft's playbook with its latest Java tools strategy.

In a bid to widen its lead in the e-business software market, BEA is courting software developers with a new Java-based programming tool that company executives have dubbed a "Visual Basic for Java."

Visual Basic is Microsoft's visual-oriented programming tool that revolutionized Windows development in 1991 because of its ease of use: Instead of writing all the software code by hand, developers dragged and dropped pre-built software code on their computer screens to build applications.

Now BEA hopes to simplify the development of Web services in the same way with its new tool, called WebLogic Workshop, formerly code-named Cajun.

By opening up Java to less technical programmers, BEA executives believe the company can make Java development more appealing and, in turn, lure more companies to buy its high-margin application-server software that runs the back-end, Web-based Java applications for e-commerce and online transactions.

With the strategy, BEA is wading into new waters, analysts said. The company's expertise is in building and marketing complex server software. Now, BEA will be up against competitors with years of experience in low-end development tools, including Microsoft, the market leader, and companies like Macromedia, which sells the popular Cold Fusion tool.

At its annual eWorld conference in San Diego on Monday, BEA plans to announce WebLogic Workshop and release a test version of the tool. The company will also debut updates to its entire family of WebLogic e-business software, featuring better security and integration between products.

BEA also plans to announce new developer programs that include education, training, information and tools online as well as customer support, according to the company.

Analysts say BEA's new technology solves two problems: It plugs a hole in the company's product family and answers the Java community's need for an easy-to-use development tool to combat Microsoft--and its recently released Visual Studio.Net tools--in the battle for software developers.

While plenty of Java development tools exist, they tend to be more difficult to use for less skilled programmers. That's where Microsoft has made huge inroads with Visual Basic, Visual C++ and other tools.

"BEA is trying to expand its presence, and it is a good defensive move," said Illuminata analyst James Governor. "While BEA is the market leader for application servers, it lacked a compelling tools story as a differentiator."

In the $2.25 billion-a-year market for Java application servers, BEA ranks first with 36 percent market share, followed by IBM with 34 percent, Sun Microsystems with 7 percent and Oracle with 5 percent, according to Giga Information Group.

Each of those companies is touting Web services as the future of development. Web services comprise software that is built in such a way that companies with different computing systems can interact and conduct transactions. BEA, Sun, IBM and Oracle have adopted the Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) standard as the way to build business software and Web services. Microsoft steers developers toward its own programming model, called .Net.

Before WebLogic Workshop, however, BEA was the only company in the group without a development tool, choosing instead to partner with independent toolmakers such as Borland and BEA spinoff WebGain.

With WebLogic Workshop, BEA is also expanding its target market beyond traditional Java-savvy developers in information technology departments to less skilled programmers in business units that need to quickly develop software. By making Java coding easier, BEA executives believe WebLogic Workshop will open up J2EE development beyond the estimated 3 million Java developers to as many as 11 million potential customers.

Gartner analyst Mark Driver says that by targeting these opportunistic, tactical RAD developers, BEA will...be going after Microsoft's traditional user base.

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"We want to get as many J2EE developers as possible," said BEA Chief Technology Officer Scott Dietzen. "It's fair to say we've run out of the gurus that made it the hit it is today, and we're looking to grow the base to include a class of developer that's much more interested in business."

Analysts say it's too soon to tell whether the tool will succeed. BEA plans to release the final version of WebLogic Workshop later this summer. But BEA can draw on the talents and experience of two Microsoft veterans who joined BEA when the company bought a start-up called Crossgain last July: Tod Nielsen, BEA's new chief marketing officer, who hopes to repeat the success he had in building Microsoft's developer community, and Adam Bosworth, BEA's vice president of engineering, who served as Microsoft's expert on XML (Extensible Markup Language), a Web standard that lies at the heart of Web services.

BEA will need the additional marketing and development muscle, since Microsoft has the company squarely in its sights. Tom Button, Microsoft's vice president of developer tools management, said "to view the battle as Microsoft vs. (Java) is a misnomer. It will come down to Microsoft vs. Cajun or (IBM's) WebSphere, or some other specific Java environment."

And though BEA leads the application server market, IBM is right behind. The former needs a hit product to drive sales.

On Thursday, BEA reported fourth-quarter pro forma earnings of $31.3 million, or 7 cents a share, on sales of $231.3 million. Including expenses and one-time items, BEA reported earnings of $10.6 million, or 3 cents a share. The results were in line with First Call estimates, but many analysts had expected BEA to top their projections.

"We believe that BEA continues to hold an edge in the battle for application server market share, but that increased competition from IBM and new market entrants, a more level playing field, and aggressive pricing will accelerate the pace at which BEA must expand its footprint," said Michael Marzolf, an analyst at USB Piper Jaffray.

Paul Krieg, an analyst at Legg Mason, said WebLogic Workshop looks promising, but it's unlikely to help BEA's sales in the short run, since IT spending is at a virtual standstill.

Brewing controversy
The new tool has also stirred debate in the Java community. Some competing software makers have charged that WebLogic Workshop could break the "write once, run anywhere" promise of the Java language, in which every Java program can potentially run on any operating system or piece of hardware that supports Java. But it is an accusation that BEA executives--and analysts--dispute.

For BEA to build an easy-to-use tool, the company had to include new commands that are not yet part of the Java language standard. The tool also includes technology that allows programs to automatically run on BEA's application server.

Rivals say that "lock in" strategy ties customers to BEA technology. Java proponents fear that the new tool will result in Java software that does not comply with the current standard, meaning it won't be compatible with other servers.

"Customers don't want to be locked into one operating system or platform, so building applications that deploy on only one application server is not going to be well-received," said Scott Cosby, who runs IBM's Web services marketing.

BEA, however, plans to submit the new technology to the standards process and to allow its rivals to use the same commands in their tools.

"I know what our competitors are saying, and that's bogus," said BEA Chief Executive Alfred Chuang. "Every line of code we generate with Cajun is standard. There is no lock-in. It's totally open. If the user adheres to the Java standard 100 percent, the code is portable. It should run" on competing application servers.

Java software makers walk a fine line between innovating and potentially breaking the "write once, run anywhere" promise of Java. Analysts say software makers have historically submitted new Java technology to the Java Community Process standards body; when technology becomes part of the standard, every company can have access to the technology. BEA does it, and so does IBM, for example.

Analysts believe the software code generated by BEA's tool should be able to run on other application servers, with some tinkering.

"You could still probably deploy the software somewhere else, but it wouldn't be as automatic," Gilpin said. "You'd have to dink around with the files in the directories and such."

Illuminata's Governor agreed.

"Sun would be screaming bloody murder if it thought BEA was trying to co-opt and fragment Java," he said. "As I understand it, Cajun will generate J2EE code that could run on IBM WebSphere or Oracle 9i Application Server, without a massive porting overhead."

As part of BEA's strategy, the company has increased integration between its e-business software, such as the application server; integration server, which connects a company's different business software together; and portal server, which allows companies to create portal Web sites for employees and customers. While BEA customers can still buy the products separately, the company is giving a pricing deal to those who want to buy them all at once, Dietzen said.

BEA has also built new security features, including a graphical tool that allows companies to set security policies for each employee or customer; such a feature allows companies to dictate how much information an employee or customer can have access to, Dietzen said.

News.com's Larry Dignan contributed to this report.