Delphi to break through platform barrier

Delphi developers are a notoriously faithful bunch, and soon they will be able to cross platforms without any pangs of guilt.

Inprise/Borland Corp.’s latest offering will allow developers the chance to use the tried and true Delphi developer tool to design applications for the Linux platform. Over the years one of the few beefs developers had against Delphi was its Windows exclusivity, forcing them to other tools to develop for platforms as diverse as Unix and Macintosh.

But will the Linux version, slated for release later this year, succeed gaining developer market share? According to developers, as long as it stays true to its past it will be all right. Analysts, on the other hand are not as sure.

“It (Delphi) is by far the best development tool available for Windows,” said Alfred Ayache, president of The Last Byte, a Toronto-based custom software developer. “The ones that are real dyed-in-the-wool developers, when they encounter Delphi, they love it,” he added. “It is as easy to use as VB (Microsoft’s Visual Basic) but can be as deep as C++.”

Inprise/Borland’s plan is to simplify the moving of Delphi and C++ Builder (its C++ language developer tool) applications between Windows and Linux by having a large percentage of common code. The combined tools for Linux are known by the name Kylix.

Rob Schieck, president of MER Systems, a builder of custom applications in Richmond Hill, Ont., agrees with Ayache’s assessment of Delphi, but sees a more difficult problem for Inprise/Borland to overcome.

“I have no qualms that Borland builds the best tools…the problem is that they can’t market against Microsoft,” he explained.

good tool, tough neighbourhood

And that is the situation in a nutshell. Many developers see Delphi as the penultimate tool within a difficult and dominated market space.

Microsoft’s Visual Basic has been around longer than Delphi, according to Ayache, but lacks its sophistication. He calls VB a thin tool without the depth of Delphi. The big difference between the two is that Delphi is both compiled and object-oriented while VB is neither. Ayache said it is a little ironic that VB, which uses the Basic language, is to be released fully object oriented after years of Microsoft saying that all developers needed was an object based tool.

Delphi uses the Pascal computer language. It was developed as a teaching language and has resurfaced as a programming language with the introduction of Delphi, according to developers.

For analysts, moving to Linux is an obvious choice. “I think they are just appealing to that particular (Linux) audience,” said Tracy Corbo, senior analyst in the application development group with the Hurwitz Group in Framingham, Mass. “It is [a case of] why not expand your user base,” she added.

“As a [company] who targets tools at developers, I think you should reach out to as big a developer community as you can.”

Schieck sees another advantage for Borland (developers never refer to the company by its elongated name).

“So Borland, by going to the Linux platform…instead of being the follower of Microsoft, can be the leader of development tools,” he said.

all is not roses

Joseph Feiman, research director at the Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford Conn., disagrees that Borland can even be a leader in this market. He said the company seems to be lacking direction and completeness of vision. Borland creates technologically sound products, but is not good at taking its vision and making it a reality, according to Feiman. This in turn makes them more of a niche player or challenger in this market, not a leader, he said.

Feiman added more gloom to the picture. Having the greatest tool is no guarantee of survival in the competitive developer tool market, he said. IBM’s Smalltalk is the best of the object oriented tools, according to Feiman.

“But what is the market share of Smalltalk?” he queried. “[It is] meaningless because there was no vendor able to make Smalltalk a really great success.”

IBM tried, but hasn’t succeeded, he added.

“I can understand them being passionate (about a specific developer’s tool) but unfortunately it is not enough.”

Further salt was added to the wounds. Gartner research concludes that the vast majority of future developers will come from universities. This does not bode well for Pascal language-based tools. Feiman said Sun Microsystem Inc.’s Java is the future. While 22 per cent of the universities Gartner surveyed said they were going to abandon C++ for Java, a majority (55 per cent) said they were going to phase out Pascal in favour of Java.

Feiman does see some sun shining through the storm clouds. “It is a really user-friendly [development tool] and Linux might lack that,” he said of Delphi’s push into a new frontier.

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