There are signs that Sun Microsystems is softening to the criticisms of Microsoft and others that it is too language-centric.
This week, Sun released an early access version of its Forte Developer 7 product line that promotes the idea of a single tool suitable for multilanguage development, incorporating C, C++ and Fortran, as well as the ubiquitous Java.
The key change with the latest release, updating the current Developer 6 update 2 product, is that it has been migrated to the NetBeans open source platform, also used as the foundation for Sun's Forte for Java integrated development environment. The move creates a unified user interface between Sun's development tools for the first time. Sun has also added support for Java to its debugger, performance analysis and binding tools in an effort to tie the worlds of 'native' and Java programmers more closely together.
Context: Forte for Java may get the most attention, but Sun has been in the tools business for years with more traditional language tools. Forte Developer 7 doesn't come from the acquisition of tools developer Forte in 1999, but is a rebranding of Sun's original Visual Workshop tools for Solaris. Sun also acquired Prague-based NetBeans in 1999 for its component integration framework, based on an ongoing open source project.
Product line manager Peter Crosby says that a myth has grown up over the years that C and C++ developers are "different beasts" than Java programmers. Despite some differences in attitude -- C and C++ users have to embrace the object-oriented world to accept Java and lose some of the flexibility they've been used to -- that's just not the case, he says. Many programmers now swap between the languages and use the most suitable language for the task in hand.
Technology: Along with its new support for NetBeans, Sun has added enhancements to its dbx debugger so that it will now debug Java code as well. Java developers typically use the separate gbd debugger. Now dbx will step through both Java and C++ calls, and developers will no longer need two tools. Crosby says this is a first, and something that Windows developers will be keen to get ahold of. With some of the functionality embedded within the Solaris operating system, that's not likely to happen.
Developer 7 also includes performance analysis tools that look at Java code once it's gone through the just-in-time compiler, where previously they'd been limited to analyzing code for the interpreter. Both are important for optimizing performance. And a native connector tool can now be used to create the Java classes that act as bindings between C++ code and Java, making it easier to mix different types of code within applications, for added Web services, for instance.
The products are still subject to change, depending on comments from the developer community. The current plan is to make the final version available toward the end of the second quarter of this year. Pricing has yet to be decided.
Competition: The main competition remains Microsoft. "All our developers have a PC on their desk too," says Crosby. But he says the open source GNU tools have grown in credibility over recent years, now that people trust the open source model more and now that the tools themselves have matured. And Sun can't aggressively target competition from that area without appearing to bully. Its main defense is to make sure its own tools will work with GNU and handle the compilation of open source applications, something that wasn't always the case until recently.
The recently introduced IBM Eclipse project, a platform for developing integrated development environments that's designed to customize an IDE with best-of-breed tools, might also have an effect on Sun's tools sales. The technology rollout and political ramifications are still being played out, however. Crosby says that it's the call of Sun's NetBeans unit, and wherever they go, he will follow.
Sun also continues to claim performance advantages over GNU and others, especially in the Fortran space. Fortran users might not account for many copies of the compiler, but they're typically being used on large supercomputers, and might well stimulate sales of some giant servers. Competition in this space comes from Intel's KAI division and from Compaq's Visual Fortran.
Conclusion: With all the noise surrounding Java, it's easy to forget that there are still more developers using C and C++ than Java. A study by Evans Data last year estimated that 2002 would be the year that Java developers would finally outnumber C and C++ developers in North America. Java usage in Europe is already higher, the study found. But the increase has come at the expense of Visual Basic as well as C and C++, and it's clear that the need for high-performance coding in native languages isn't going to go away. The addition of Java support within Developer 7 should help the different worlds more easily coexist together.
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