Sun Microsystems Inc. said attendance jumped to 14,000 at its JavaOne conference this month in San Francisco — an increase of 2,000 over last year’s event and a sign that interest in the language and development platform Sun created nine years ago remains high.

Yet Sun continues to struggle in the commercial tools market, despite its cachet as the inventor of Java. Analysts place Sun among the bottom dwellers in the commercial Java tools market, estimating that it commands less than 10 per cent of a market led by Borland Software Corp. and IBM Corp.

Sun has high hopes that the new offerings it demonstrated and previewed at JavaOne — particularly its visually oriented Java Studio Creator — will spark a resurgence in interest in its tools products. But the company faces an uphill climb in changing perceptions within a developer community that has paid little attention to its commercial tools to date.

“I don’t use any Sun products,” said Scott Jensen, a software developer at Beneficial Life Insurance Co. in Salt Lake City and a user of JetBrains Inc.’s IntelliJ. “They created Java, and it gives them a marketing edge, but when it comes down to it, it’s the competitiveness of the products that counts.”

“I’ve never even evaluated Sun tools,” said Rick Davis, a Ravenswood, W.Va.-based senior systems analyst at Pechiney Rolled Products LLC, which uses IBM’s WebSphere application server and, like most WebSphere sites, the development tool designed for it. Although Davis expressed curiosity about the new offerings Sun promoted at its recent JavaOne show, he added, “I’m curious about a lot of things, but I don’t have time for them.”

A random poll of more than a dozen attendees at JavaOne found that none use Sun commercial tools. A few said they use Sun’s open-source NetBeans integrated development environment (IDE). Sun previewed a 4.0 version of NetBeans this month.

Daniel Vela, a San Antonio, Tex.-based software engineer at Sierra Nevada Corp., said he has no need for Sun’s commercial tools because NetBeans is more than adequate. He said several colleagues also use NetBeans, and two of them have opted for the open-source Eclipse IDE that IBM created and this year turned over to an independent nonprofit corporation to manage.

An architect at a big investment bank who asked not to be named said he uses Eclipse, NetBeans and IntelliJ. He said he abandoned Borland’s JBuilder because of the expense and opted for the cheaper IntelliJ. He said he tends to favour Eclipse over NetBeans because it’s “snappier.” The architect expressed respect for Sun as the “only viable steward of Java.” But, he added, “it’s difficult to see how they reconcile the investment they’re making in Java. I find it hard to work out how Sun will make any money off the Java platform.”

Sun is being creative with bundled options and subscription pricing, but the growing popularity of free open-source options such as Eclipse and NetBeans threatens commercial offerings. Thomas Murphy, an analyst at Meta Group Inc., said more corporations will take a mixed approach, using commercial and open-source tools to cut costs. A J2EE tools suite can cost US$5,000 to $10,000 per developer, he said.

“People are pushing back against that,” Murphy said. Some development teams, however, still want the add-ons that a commercial tool provides. Joseph Saab, a Detroit-based development manager at Daimler Chrysler AG, said the automaker needs the Enterprise JavaBeans support, test environment and enterprise application integration modelers in IBM’s WebSphere Studio Application Developer.

Developers expressed varying levels of interest in Java Studio Creator, the Microsoft-like drag-and-drop tool that comes free with a US$99 annual Sun developer network subscription. Todd Reeser, a manager of application development at Choice Hotels International in Phoenix, said his group will evaluate Creator, even though he has heard some say “it’s a toy.” His group uses Eclipse. “It’s open-source, it’s free, and it’s an excellent IDE,” he said.

Christopher Randall, a Seaside, Calif.-based software engineer at Northrop Grumman Corp., said he typically has found Sun’s new tools to be too slow, but he was impressed when testing Creator in labs at JavaOne. Whether he will actually use it is another matter. He said he doesn’t use an IDE. “When you use an IDE, you always have to learn some set of steps that may or may not be applicable to what you’re doing,” he said. Creator also has another strike against it. “I generally don’t like programming with drag-and-drop,” he said.

But Mark Driver, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said ease of use and rapid application development tools represent hardware-centric Sun’s last chance to have an impact in the tools business, since there’s no leader in that area. “This is a market for them to lose, and they have lost it,” Driver said. “They have a long tradition of shooting themselves in the foot with anything that has to do with software strategy.”

Murphy said that in order to make strides in tools, Sun will have to establish more of a presence with its application server. “You have to have the combination,” he said.

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