Sybase fights to stay in tool game

The company will lay out a plan for bringing its flagship PowerBuilder development tool more fully into the era of distributed application building.

Mike Ricciuti Staff writer, CNET News
Mike Ricciuti joined CNET in 1996. He is now CNET News' Boston-based executive editor and east coast bureau chief, serving as department editor for business technology and software covered by CNET News, Reviews, and Download.com. E-mail Mike.
Mike Ricciuti
4 min read
Sybase is fighting to keep its place in the development tool game.

The company will lay out a plan at its Powersoft Conference next month in Los Angeles for bringing its flagship PowerBuilder development tool more fully into the era of distributed application building.

In the process, company executives hope to convince their huge user base that Sybase is in the tools business for the long haul, despite recent financial troubles at the company.

At the conference, Sybase will announce PowerBuilder 6.5, a new version of its client-server development tool, along with a new release of PowerJ, its Java-based toolset, sources close to the company said.

The company will also announce Jaguar CTS 2.0, a new release of Sybase's application server intended to mesh more fully with PowerBuilder and simplify the company's somewhat confusing application server lineup. The new application server enters beta testing this summer and is expected to ship by year's end.

While PowerBuilder remains a favorite among business software developers at big companies, the tool--one of the first serious Windows-based business development tools--isn't winning any new converts, analysts said.

"PowerBuilder is solid with its installed base," said Michael Barnes, an analyst with the Hurwitz Group. "But Sybase's focus has been on solidifying its installed base, as opposed to getting new customers."

At the same time, competition has become fierce. New kids on the block, including Allaire, NetObjects, NetDynamics (bought by Sun Microsystems last week), and Haht Software, have cropped up in the past few years, all aiming at the PowerBuilder-style developer.

And old nemeses, like Microsoft and Oracle are making a renewed effort to capture development tool business.

PowerBuilder's popularity--the company claims more than 100,000 users--as a traditional "fat client" development tool has limited its appeal to corporate developers looking to build newer thin-client and multitier Web applications. "Sybase has done an excellent job of making midlevel developers heroes. But they really have not given those developers a transition path to n-tier computing," Barnes said.

Newer e-commerce and other Web applications have driven the need for application server software, which provides the so-called middleware connections between Web-based clients and back-end databases and enterprise resource planning applications.

Also, application servers theoretically let systems become more flexible and easier to build. For instance, the rules defining how a bank's customers can obtain their account information might be hardcoded into a mainframe application. To write a new system that uses those same rules, you need to recreate them.

But by separating the rules in a middle layer of code, residing on an application server, they become accessible to multiple applications and can be reused.

That's the current state of the art in business application development, analysts said. But before Sybase can play in the larger market for multitier development tools, the company must rework PowerBuilder, trim its overgrown set of application server tools, and retrofit them to work with newer technology, analysts said.

"Sybase recognizes the importance of application servers in terms of enterprise application development," said David Kelly, also with the Hurwitz Group. "So I would expect them to place renewed focus on an application server product. And I think it would make sense to see a consolidation of multitier models within the Sybase product family."

The company's current application server lineup includes three dissimilar products: PowerBuilder Distributed Application Server, Sybase's first attempt at building an application server to work with fat client PowerBuilder applications; PowerDynamo, a thin-client application server intended to extend PowerBuilder for HTML applications; and Jaguar CTS, a component server introduced last year for handling ActiveX and Java components on the middle tier.

Sybase is adding support for both PowerBuilder and its PowerJ Java development tool to Jaguar CTS 2.0, along with new CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture) support. That will let developers using PowerBuilder's outmoded application server make the switch to standards-based component development.

And, PowerBuilder 6.5, due out later this year, and PowerBuilder 7.0, a future update of the toolset, will be specially tuned for building Jaguar components.

Also new in the tool will be a reworked look and feel, productivity enhancements that give developers multiple, simultaneous views of objects, new wizards for automatically building and deploying distributed objects, and new Java-to-database connectivity tools, according to the company.

The new features might help the company to grow its installed base, analysts said. But more importantly, the revamped tools could help Sybase retain its existing customers, many of which have been stuck in a holding pattern, afraid to architect new distributed applications with PowerBuilder.

"Many [Sybase customers] have been waiting nine months to a year to start new projects, because it was clear that Distributed PowerBuilder wasn't the right architecture for the industry," said one source, who requested anonymity. "That's really held back their penetration."