BEA chief positions new tools as a radical shift

The head of BEA Systems Inc. recently offered the first public glimpse of WebLogic Workshop, a new development framework intended to lure more developers to BEA’s software by making it easier for programmers to create Java-based Web services.

In a speech at the start of BEA’s annual developer conference in San Diego, president and CEO Alfred Chuang positioned the product as a radical shift in the way programmers work and one that will “revolutionize the way we think about Java.”

The new framework, known previously by its code name Cajun, uses visual modelling tools that allow programmers with minimal Java training to create Java-based Web services that link disparate business applications together, he said. The products are intended to boost the productivity of developers and reduce the time that it takes to bring new applications to market.

“Our competitors have been developing tools for Java … but they have done nothing more than take difficult-to-use technologies, expose some APIs and simplify it with wizards,” Chuang said, referring to rivals such as IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. “That is not Cajun,” he said.

“We can’t produce the kind of productivity we need if everyone speaks a different language. We have to have a single platform that transcends all these environments and lets everyone work in a unified way. That is Cajun.”

Using visual interfaces that mask the complexity of J2EE APIs, developers accustomed to working with procedural-based languages such as Visual Basic or COBOL can create Java-based Web services without having to become familiar with object-oriented programming, BEA officials said.

BEA insisted that its goal is not to become a tools provider, which would put it into conflict with tools partners such as Borland Software Corp. The visual interfaces in Workshop only allow the creation of relatively simple Web services; large enterprises tying together complex business applications still will need specialized tools from BEA’s partners, Scott Dietzen, BEA’s chief technology officer, said in an interview.

The vendor is working with its partners to integrate their tools into Workshop, which will allow developers at various Java skill levels to work on applications within the same framework, he said.

“It’s easy to see a demonstration like this and think: ‘BEA’s gone into the tools business and built a series of ease-of-use widgets around Java,'” Chuang said. “That’s not the case; it’s about changing the way applications are built.”

BEA’s main goal at the moment is to expand its base of developers as quickly as possible, which will strengthen the company’s position as a whole, Chuang said. His goal is to boost the BEA developer community to one million over the next year, up from about 350,000 developers today, he said.

A beta version of Workshop was released to developers at the conference, and the final product is due to ship by midyear, he said.

The idea of Web services has been so over-hyped that some people are starting to think of it as “the new Java,” Chuang said in his keynote. The reality is less dramatic but important nevertheless. Web services are “a set of technologies that allow enterprise applications to go to a common point to integrate,” he said.

Workshop has been widely anticipated by BEA developers, who burst into applause when it was first shown on a giant screen by the stage. At the same time, developers who watched Chuang’s speech said they are still wrestling with what Web services are.

“I didn’t understand what he said and I’m not really sure what Web services is, so it would be hard to for me to comment,” said Jon Wynett with Global Healthcare Exchange, a Westminster, Colorado-based company that makes an e-commerce system for the health industry.

Like many other IT professionals, Wynett is still trying to understand what Web services are, although he agreed that the idea of having an environment that lets programmers with different skills work on the same applications is an attractive one. “It looks like a good idea, although I’m suspicious that it won’t solve real complex applications,” Wynett said. “It’s hard to account for every possibility, every type of situation.”

Another attendee who works for an Italian bank said her company is still using BEA’s Tuxedo product, and hasn’t started to think yet about Web services. “Maybe in the future, but not now,” said Tiziana Pirola, a systems administrator with Banc Pop di Bergamo, near Milan.

– IDG News Service