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WebObjects: Apple's best-kept secret?

Developers love the Web-app software, but the company hasn't marketed it much. That will change, say Apple execs.

4 min read
Apple is best known for the iMac, Power Macintosh G3, and PowerBooks. But the company's best-kept secret may be WebObjects, its highly regarded, but little marketed Web-application development software.

The software, picked up in the Next Software acquisition in 1997, has survived several chief technologists and Apple's roller-coaster earnings, to become one of the early leaders in the emerging application server market, analysts say.

Now Apple says its getting more serious about the WebObjects application server and is mulling support for the Java 2 Enterprise Edition, a move analysts say is vital for WebObjects to survive in the crowded and consolidating market.

Some 50 companies, ranging from startups such as Bluestone and SilverStream to software heavyweights such as Sun Microsystems and Oracle, are vying for a share of the market that is expected to grow to more than $2 billion in revenue by 2002, according to a study by Forrester Research.

Allen Denison, Apple's WebObjects product manager, said the company is devoting more resources on the product. "We've added more than ever on engineering and sales and marketing," he said, without declining to be more specific.

An application server is software that connects client systems to backend services, such as databases, corporate human resources programs, and stock trading systems. Like traditional transaction-processing software, application servers manage client sessions, host business logic, and maintain connectivity. But they are custom-tailored to Web applications in that they can adapt to the wildly unpredictable transaction volumes of, for example, online trading and auction sites.

Analysts say Apple needs to add more support for Java because the industry is quickly rallying behind two programming models: Sun Microsystems' Java 2 Enterprise Edition, which includes the Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) programming model, and Microsoft's proprietary COM programming model.

Dozens of competitors, such as IBM, Oracle, and BEA Systems, have rallied behind Java 2 EE. Apple is sitting on the sidelines with its own proprietary programming model called Enterprise Objects Framework.

Analyst Jeetu Patel, of Doculabs, said Apple has to support EJBs for its app server to thrive.

"They don't have a choice, but to do it. EJBs are getting so much momentum," he said. "It's silly to ignore it."

Analyst Martin Marshall, of Zona Research, said Apple earned $24 million last year from the WebObjects app server, which makes it one of the leaders in the market, but Apple will be left behind if it doesn't support EJBs soon.

"It should be somewhat embarrassing to Apple and WebObjects to play the catch-up game," he said. "They can't dink around. They have to do it. How can you not? Culturally, the same people that would adopt WebObjects would be favorable to Java."

Denison of Apple said the company is investigating support for EJBs and the rest of Java 2 EE, which includes Java Server Pages (JSP), which allows Web pages to include Java applications. Apple's proprietary programming model can easily support EJBs, he added.

"We will respond to this in the future. We're working on a couple of releases right now and see where it fits in," Denison said.

One reason for supporting EJBs is to ensure that software written with other application servers is compatible with WebObjects, he said.

A recent International Data Corporation study predicted that WebObjects will be competitive when companies, large and small, choose an app server. Patel, of Doculabs, agrees, saying a lot of customers have put WebObjects on its short list of buying options because it's a good, powerful product.

In fact, Apple sports a huge list of customers, including Warner Music and GE Capital.

But some analysts say it's tough for WebObjects to be taken seriously by large businesses because Apple is known mostly as a consumer company. Apple hasn't marketed WebObjects well enough, said Forrester Research analyst Josh Walker.

"We don't see them in the enterprise at all. They're not taken seriously. It's a very popular platform, but they're not putting the marketing dollars behind it," Walker said. "It may be the best-kept secret. But Apple seems to be keeping it a secret as well."

Analyst Phil Costa, of Giga Information Group, said he believes WebObjects would be more popular if Apple had never purchased Next Software. Costa said WebObjects may have gotten lost in Apple's hardware-centric marketing.

"They were one of the earliest players in the market. If Apple had never bought Next, we would be here talking about WebObjects in the same context as GemStone Systems and Persistence."

Costa, who recently talked to Apple about WebObjects, said Apple is trying to do more marketing of the product. Apple, which is selling the app server directly in the United States, is trying to increase the number of value added resellers in Europe. But from his conversations with Apple, the company is resisting doing a major advertising campaign touting WebObjects.

Apple, he added, could lose whatever market share it has if it continues to sit on the fence over supporting the EJB standard, he said. "They risk being left behind."