4GLs Forced to Reposition Products or Fade Away

There is a notable shift taking place toward the use of Windows as a development platform for enterprise-level applications. A recent survey by SPG Analyst Services (www.ullo.com) confirms that Windows is growing as a development platform among Fortune 1000 companies. More than half -- 56 percent -- develop off Windows NT. The number is projected to grow to 83 percent within the next two years and widen its lead over Unix-based development. The percentage developing on Windows 95 and Windows 98 workstations will grow from 57 percent to 62 percent.

But which environments are developers using to accomplish this porting of applications: fourth-generation languages (4GLs), Java, component-based middleware, or something else?

While 4GLs have been a popular choice in recent years, Java is a rising star that is eclipsing these proprietary development and runtime environments. 4GLs enable developers to write code once and generate versions for various platforms -- the same advantage Java provides. But, "most 4GLs are proprietary in nature," says Steve Garone, analyst with International Data Corp. (IDC, www.idc.com). "In many cases, 4GLs and the tools that support them did not, in the past, prove to be an effective means of developing large-scale, complex, enterprisewide applications. The results were usually limited to spanning workgroups or small departments." IDC estimates that the overall 4GL/RAD market is growing at an anemic rate of 2.3 percent a year, and this drops to a negative growth rate when rapid application development tools are factored out.

A recent survey of large companies by Forrester Research (www.forrester.com) finds that 56 percent plan to implement mission-critical, Java-based business applications this year. Forrester also finds that the market for Java-based tools for developing business applications will reach $200 million.

Other technologies may diminish the need for 4GLs as well. "Component-based development is quickly becoming a popular way of building software applications," Garone says. But he notes, "4GL tool vendors are already beginning to present alternatives to the marketplace" to address Web-centric application development and deployment and legacy integration.

Most 4GL vendors are repositioning their products as Java and Web-based application generators. With Web capabilities, this may extend the reach of their applications within organizations.

Progress Software Corp. (www.progress.com), which offers the Progress 4GL, seeks to provide its base of users a migration path to the Internet. Progress' Aptivity is an integrated environment for developing and deploying Java-based applications. Another 4GL vendor, Passport Corp. (www.passportcorp.com), unveiled its Web application tool, IntRprise 1.2, in 1997, a year after it began shipping its Windows NT version.

Cool:Plex, formerly known as Obsydian, from Sterling Software (www.sterling.com), was an AS/400-based development tool that added Windows NT functionality -- and can generate code in either direction. Last year, Java was added to its list of target environments. Much of the new development taking place with Cool:Plex is in an NT environment, notes Ramon Chen, director of product marketing at Sterling. In the process, NT is rising to the level of a "legitimate development environment for building applications at the scale that you see on the AS/400 -- network infrastructures that reach every width and breadth of a large corporation," he says.

Another 4GL vendor that provides a cross-platform application framework, Prolifics (www.prolifics.com), announced a Web-enabling version of its toolset earlier this year. Along with Windows, Unix, and Macintosh applications, developers can also generate Web-based applications. "We want to be open on the Java front," says Deva Gupta, director of product management for Prolifics. "All Prolifics objects are now also provided as Java objects for Java programmers to use and manipulate. We've given Java programmers a way in which they can get into our product with Java."

Gupta notes, however, that she has not yet seen widespread development of enterprise-scale Java applications in 4GL environments. Rather, Web-enablement through HTML has dominated. One major customer, Syntellect, an Atlanta-based communications service that handles pay-per-view transactions for about 700 North American cable TV companies, used Prolifics to generate -- from Windows -- Web-based HTML interfaces that are based on an HP 9000 server. Cable-TV viewers have the option of ordering an event or movie through a Web site. "We can develop and deploy new Web pages in Windows, copy it out to a Unix server, and it just runs as is," says David McCampbell, VP of engineering for Syntellect.