The PowerBuilder Phenomenon – One Perspective
This is a historical perspective of the application development platform and IDE named PowerBuilder by Sybase Corporation. The summary was written by Rich Bianco and is accurate to the best of his knowledge. This summary contains facts and opinions about the history of PowerBuilder, the opinions are Rich’s and do not reflect those of any client he represents. Rich is an expert level PB developer having extensive experience with Version 3 through Version 11.2 against all major DBMS (Oracle, MS SQL Server, Sybase SQL Server, Informix).
The Birth and Death of PowerBuilder (1985-87)
The initial prototype of PowerBuilder was presented to management at a company called Cullinet in 1985, however they were facing big problems fending off Computer Associates from a hostile takeover, and were not able to capitalize on the outstanding product. They lost the battle against CA shortly after in 1986 via a hostile takeover. The prototype was deemed non-essential to the corporate raiders at CA and shelved along with firing of it’s developers. It would appear that PowerBuilder was dead before it had a chance. It is ironic that CA practically gave away the most valuable part of the company they engulfed.
Rebirth – Luck, or Karma? (1988)
In 1988, PowerSoft had been developing apps for the VAX platform and saw that PC products were about to explode, so they asked the vultures over at CA if they wanted to sell the original code. CA had looked at the code and determined it “had no future”, so they sold it to PowerSoft for a few dollars and good luck wish. PowerSoft then assembled the original team and started enhancing the program. Three years after initial concept the project was brought back to life, either by Luck, or Karma.
“PowerBuilder” was for real (1989)
About a year after getting the code from CA, the team had themselves a product, and christened it with the name “PowerBuilder”. They were developing VAX applications for customers and started to rewrite some internal applications using the new tool. It was a brilliant way to test, improve and refine the tool. However they lacked the funding to undertake the complex projects. HP was invited for a demo of the product, and apparently was so impressed that they pretty much wrote a blank check to PowerSoft. HP began developing their in-house PC apps using PowerBuilder, while PowerSoft was rewriting complex VAX applications for the PC and collecting real-world test results and refining the tool along the way. PowerBuilder had a feature that is not available in any other language to this day, not without purchasing add-ons or sacrificing control or offering database independence.
First global customers (1989-90)
The first few worldwide customers were enough validation that PowerBuilder filled a huge void in a huge untapped market. Most notable is the second customer. I don’t believe many people know PB was adopted by Microsoft so early on. I suppose MS would not prefer to advertise the fact that they weren’t developing with their own tools.
- Royal Australian Air Force– First global customer
- Microsoft Corporation– Second global customer. Management in Redmond, WA not only purchased licenses and developed in-house applications, but it has been said that employees using PowerBuilder raved about it to friends further fueling the PB fever that was under way.
- Canadian Government– PB became the tool of choice for development after a recommendation made to the Canadian Government. Revenue Canada built GST (Govt. Sales Tax) system that is tracking tax returns to this day. Most Canadian departments use PB for mission-critical systems ranging from those that scan your license plate when you drive into Canada, scanning of your passport, to critical interfacing with Canadian runway and radar system (a 24×7 operation). The list of applications is quite large many still in use today. Other applications are the Old Age Pension (developed in 2002), Case Logging for the Supreme Court & Tax Court of Canada, Firearms Registration System, UN Troop Deployment, Security Clearance System, and Federal Election support systems. An independent study compared performance of one of their systems written in PB v.s. Visual Basic and the PB one performed 4000% faster. Maybe Canadians are smarter than us Americans’ and not so eager to use a tool (e.g. Java, .Net) just because it is the new buzzword, or the latest fad.
Money, Money, Money (1990-96)
PowerBuilder was gaining traction fast, companies couldn’t buy it fast enough, and developers with experience were commanding six figure salaries. Revenue numbers were amazing growing consistently year after year. Around 1994 the inevitable happened, PowerSoft merged, or was
acquired by Sybase to the tune of around a billion dollars in a stock deal. But Sybase was unable to retain the core developers of the product, and it appeared that they could not market the product properly. Sybase stock took a beating and I’m sure they wished the marriage could have been annulled. Market share was still very strong however but it seems like 1996 was a distinct turning point when Web mania began taking away some of PB’s thunder. Sybase wasted several years by making a commitment to Java which gave the founders that left time to make a competing tool called SilverStream (acquired by Novell in ’92)
The new scapegoat for poorly performing applications (1997-2009)
Through all of the years (over a decade) of using PowerBuilder at numerous companies against every major DBMS there was never a performance problem that could be attributed to PowerBuilder. I have a very strong theory about why people were starting to complain about how PB applications were too slow, too network intensive, or too hard on the database. Every single time I worked on one of these so called “slow” applications it was evident that the developer was not trained properly at using PowerBuilder. The combination of simplicity & power facilitated development of serious applications by persons with little programming experience. As the name “PowerBuilder” implies, it is extremely powerful tool, and in the hands of a junior level developer with little or no understanding of Object Oriented Programming or weak DBMS Skills a fair number of bad PowerBuilder applications started to make a bad name for the tool. It is my opinion, that PowerBuilder is still (in 2010) the best 4GL around. I’ll challenge anyone with their tool of choice and I’ll use PowerBuilder, and have the results independently checked for quality, performance, scalability, maintainability, and whatever other criteria they can dream up. I wish Sybase would sponsor something like this and prove once again how strong the tool is, but it seems as if they don’t even believe in themselves. Anyway my theory… almost every company I worked there were PB apps written by novice developers. PB was far too powerful a tool in the hands of a novice, it is like a civilian shooting a bazooka at the range. It got the job done but was causing damage either by retrieving the entire database into a datawindow causing database degradation, network congestion, it seemed most of the complaining originated from DBA’s and Network Engineers. It isn’t practical, but you should be required to earn a license to use PowerBuilder. It is too easy and forgiving to write bad code giving the tool a bad name.
Sybase Marketing - 1 step forward, 2 steps back? (2009 – 2010)
I can’t speak for most developers, but it will be a cold day in hell when I shell out thousands of dollars for development software to learn with. Shall I even waste the time installing PB11.5 for 30 days elapsed time, meaning I might open it about 3 or 4 times? Sybase as usual is doing the exact opposite of everyone else. We are in the age of Open Source, which is being embraced at the corporate level now, and Sybase decides to do hardware to license marriages. This means when you install the software you have to log into Sybase, and assign a physical PC with a license. If your hard drive crashes (our corporate laptops averaged every two or three years) you have to find the original instructions and detach the license and attach it to the new PC. So much for installing PB on your home PC as the license allows when the company you are working for manages the licenses.
In the past, developers were like a shadow sales team for Sybase, we would check out all the new bells and whistles on new versions and make a case to management about why we need it. With the new assume everyone is a thief first policy Sybase has effectively taken away the ability for developer to verify new features and feel comfortable recommending an upgrade. No developer that has been around the block will recommend a product based on marketing hype, we need to see it work.
All software companies have to deal with the cost of piracy, there will always be someone who will crack software it is just one cost of doing business. This cost is fairly predictable and is probably easy to detect via virtually every PC being connected to the internet. But I really wonder if Sybase has considered the cost of alienating loyal customers. How many customers will give it up and move to another tool when they are inconvenienced or are made to feel like a thief. I think of Wal-Mart which I have boycotted because I feel like a thief with all their cameras, and locked up merchandise, it used to be the smaller expensive items, but now they are locking basic items that you’d have to wear a trench coat to sneak out of the store with. Forget it, I feel like a valued customer at Target and the prices are competitive.
Who will step in next? I’m betting that WaveMaker will be the next “PowerBuilder” for Ajax and Web Applications? (2010 and beyond…)
With PowerBuilders’ popularity on an apparent decline it is only a matter of time before Sybase decides to pull the cord on it. Even though the tool offers productivity unmatched by other leading tools it may lose critical mass needed to stay in the market. Everyone is watching and waiting to see what happens and WaveMaker couldn’t have come a minute too soon. WaveMaker is the first tool that I’ve been exited about using since PowerBuilder. I’m committed to riding the next wave (pun) and learning WaveMaker. Watch my blog in the coming weeks for new WaveMaker articles, tutorials and comparisons between PowerBuilder and WaveMaker. Here is one article on WaveMaker.
Are you a PB developer or ex-PB Developer? I’d love to hear what you think, what you are doing now. Please let me know via the comments or email. If you decide to try WaveMaker look for me on the WaveMaker development forum under username RichBianco.
Misc – About PowerBuilder
- Installation Guide InfoMaker 11.5
This book is for anyone installing InfoMaker 11.5. It addresses installation, product licensing with SySAM, migration information and other topics. For complete topic information, see “Contents”.
- InfoMaker 11.5 Getting Started
This book introduces InfoMaker and provides a tutorial for learning to use InfoMaker. The lessons teach basics and how to create forms, reports, queries, and graphs.
- InfoMaker 11.5 Connecting to Your Database
This book is for anyone using InfoMaker to connect to a database. It assumes you are familiar with the database you are using and have installed the server and client software required to access the data.
- PowerBuilder 11.5 Extension Reference
This book is for programmers who build applications that use built-in PowerBuilder extensions.
- PowerBuilder 11.5 Connection Reference
This book describes the database parameters and preferences used to connect to a database in PowerBuilder.
- PowerBuilder 11.5 PowerScript Reference
This reference manual describes syntax and usage information for the PowerScript language including variables, expressions, statements, events, and functions .
- PowerBuilder 11.5 Users Guide
This book describes the PowerBuilder development environment and the use of PowerBuilder user interface tools in building objects including windows, menus, DataWindow objects, and user-defined objects, creating client/server and multitier applications .
- PowerBuilder 11.5 Getting Started
This book provides an overview of the PowerBuilder 11.5 development environment, a tutorial in which you build your first application, create a PowerDynamo Web target, deploy and run a Web site, and more. Please see “About this Book” for more details.
- Installation Guide PowerBuilder Enterprise
This book explains how to install the PowerBuilder Enterprise 11.5 product.
- Installation Guide PowerBuilder Desktop/Professional 11.5
This book describes the installation of the Desktop or Professional edition of PowerBuilder 11.5.
PowerBuilder: French Newsgroup
Newsgroup for Power Builder .net webform targets
Newsgroup for Power Builder .net assembly targets
Newsgroup for Power Builder .net webservice targets
Newsgroup for Power Builder .net winform targets
A Newsgroup for Power Builder RTE
Power Builder AppServer Plugin Newsgroup
Chinese PowerBuilder: General Topics Newsgroup
PowerBuilder: Spanish Newsgroup
Public forum for Appeon for PowerBuilder discussions.