Sun is shining, but will anyone come out to play?

Developers can be called a lot of things, but fickle generally isn’t one of them. Once they choose a development language they tend to stick to it with an almost religious fervour. The same can generally be said for their choice of developer tools.

It is, in part, for this reason that Sun Microsystems Inc. will face an uphill battle to get developers to use its recent release of Forte for Java 3.0, according to some Java developers. Though they were quick to point out that Forte is a strong contender in a field dominated by Borland’s JBuilder and IBM’s VisualAge.

Even Sun admits that a lot of Java developer tools are ahead of them. But Sun, always having the disposition of its namesake, puts a positive spin on coming into the market comparatively late.

“On the other hand we go in at a time where we have got the modern architecture…we have been building on top of that and now we almost have a head start,” said Stans Kleijnen, vice-president of Forte Tools.

If you look at some of the other tool vendors, they are in a situation that requires them to rewrite some of the tool structure, she said.

“We think on a technical level we are kind of best of breed,” she added.

Though developers may not jump ship right away, some say Forte’s feature list is compelling enough to make the thought enter their minds.

Rick Power, senior developer at Collaborative Network Technologies Inc. in St. John’s, Nfld., uses VisualAge, in part, for what he calls historical reasons.

“It is the devil you know,” he said, explaining why change is not common among some developers.

His shop uses VisualAge to some extent because it has nice visual composition editor, he explained.

“But of course the Forte for Java Internet edition has [this] as well,” he added.

“There are a lot of features that are in Forte that are not in VisualAge,” he said, including amongst others, support for the latest Java Development Kit. Another feature he likes is Forte’s NetBeans heritage, which is based on open standards thus giving other developers the ability to create add-on modules.

Power continued with his praise of Forte.

“In my mind it is the only [tool] that has the most comprehensive support for open standards,” he said. Because open standards are becoming more important in the grand scheme of things, this, in itself, could be enough of a reason to switch, he added.

good product, tough sell

But with all of this praise, Power admitted Forte lacks certain features he is accustomed to using.

In Forte, developers drop their beans onto a form (the traditional method) and then put in code for each action, he explained.

With VisualAge, beans are dropped into a specific area and then lines are drawn from the form to the beans. It is very visual, and since developers spend their time architecting the specific beans, the code will probably be better in the end, he said.

“I would say immediately if Forte came out with that tomorrow I would be very motivated to switch,” he said. “To me that is one of the only stopping features at this point.”

So, with all of the positives Power finds with Forte, a product he has used and followed through its versions, he said switching anytime soon is probably not in the cards.

But he admitted, “There are so many pieces that are in Forte it is hard for us to ignore it.”

All of this is great news for Sun, but human nature may stand in the way of success.

This is Sun’s dilemma, one which afflicts much of the human race. We tend to stick with what we know regardless of our options. We shop at the same stores and buy the same products again and again even when we know there may be something better out there.

Another factor potentially limiting crossover, according the Des Whelan director of PNI Corp. in St. John’s, is the relatively high cost associated with the application servers that plug into a given tool compared to the developer tools themselves.

PNI may look into Forte to expand his shop’s offerings. They use JBuilder and VisualAge in their shop now.

“The whole point of using Java is that you don’t tie yourself to any sort of a platform or sort of technology. I would like to be able to see developers come into our shop and use Forte, JBuilder or what ever they would like to (use),” Whelan said.

“I would like to look at it from the perspective of being able to make a really clean evaluation to see (whether) it is a better direction for us to take,” he explained.

Since PNI is more of a publicly used Java development centre, Whelan would like to be able to offer a number of tool environments.

“The fact that Forte was picked up by Sun certainly gave it a boost. But the down side is that [by the time] they came into the Sun fold…a lot of the established developers may have already have picked their tools,” he added.

“Because we are the last kid on the block we are just now getting into the upswing, especially over this last year,” Kleijnen said. Sun acquired Forte in 1999.

“I bet you dollars to doughnuts next year at Java One we could give a totally different story because we have all the functionality,” she predicted.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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