Borland: Adapt Or Perish

October 8, 2006

I cut my development teeth with cutting edge technology like DBASE III+ (10 points to anyone that can remember what pack does!). I then moved on to even more cutting edge technology called Access 2.

Inevitably I found myself in Visual Basic 6. Which was pretty fine until a succession of rough experience on two projects had me looking for the nearest tree to string myself.

VB 6 New Project

It is very difficult to explain to a CEO why the application runs on machine 1 but not on machine2, despite the fact that they had the same operating system. It was even more difficult to explain why it runs on machine 3 and machine 4 but machine 3 refuses to generate crystal reports while machine 4 does it perfectly.

The project was a disaster. Wrestling with DLL registration and un-registration. Looking for components to do pretty straightforward things.

VB 6’s Rich Component Palette

Yes, a change was necessary.

As it happened I ran into a friend that weekend waxing lyrically about Borland Delphi.

I was ready to try anything. So I sourced a copy and installed it.

And was blow away.

Borland had indeed built a better mouse trap.

Pros

  1. Blisteringly fast
  2. Came with extremely rich collection of component
  3. Built in reporting tool
  4. Compiled to EXE … no dependency headaches
  5. Object oriented
  6. Powerful language
  7. Flexible VCL Framework

Cons

  1. That begin … end thing is an acquired taste

It was a no brainier

And then enter Microsoft and .NET.

But first a little history.

Borland as a company has had a tumultuous history. On one hand they revolutionized the development industry with its Turbo Products — Turbo Pascal and Turbo Prolog. Cheap, functional development tools targeted at the masses.

On the other hand Borland have never struck observers as having a coherent and consistent strategy. Think of the excellent products they developed, got the masses hooked on and then unceremoniously dumped. Like Sidekick

Think of the moodswings that have made, at one point or another, Borland switch between being

  • A development tools company
  • A productivity software company (Borland Office, Anyone?)
  • A development tools company for the masses
  • A development tools company for the enterprise
  • An application lifecycle management company

Think of the musical chairs that have been played at the helm since the exit of Philippe Kahn.

Think even further of the mind numbing decision to dump a respectable brand and rename themselves to Inprise

And then in one fell swoop Microsoft poached the cream of the crop from the Borland Stable, including with Anders Heljsberg.

Anders Heljsberg ultimately became the architect behind .NET and C#. One wonders where Borland would be if he’d stayed.

But despite their management problems their products were generally solid. The VCL architecture in partcicular has always struck me as being brilliant. They’ve managed to build a very good abstraction layer, that frees developers to conentrate on the task at hand rather than the nuts and bolts. Delphi and C++ Builder users who have moved to .NET will immediately grasp the DataSet and data binding heritage, as well as many of the concepts behind the IDE.

VCL is an excellent example of forward thinking — the fact that the Delphi compiler team were able to bolt the .NET framework on top is testament to this.

Unfortunately good technology without strategy simply will not cut it today. Borland have never really aggressively pushed their products like Microsoft have. In today’s environment it is not what you have — it’s how you push it.

Borland’s core products are getting  a run for their money from the competition. Delhi is being blown out of the water by Visual Studio. JBuilder is facing grim odds against Eclipse. Interbase is now just another database in the crowded marketplace with arguably more capable and cheaper alternatives like SQL Express, Oracle Express, Firebird, MySQL.

Which (finally!) brings me to the point I am trying to make. Delphi is arguably the crown jewel in the Borland stable.

Delphi is undeniably THE RAD tool of choice for for native Win32 development. It is feature rich, powerful and easy to use.

Since Delphi 7 Borland has shipped 4 releases — Delphi 2005, Delhi 2006 and Turbo Explorer for Delphi.

Delphi 8 came with Delphi 7 in the box. Delphi 2005 on the other hand was APPALING. Big, buggy, and unstable. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Creating a huge mass of unhappy loyal Delphi users.

Things have not been helped by the uncertainly caused by Borland spinning off its development tools of a soon-to-be named company. Things in this regard are still unclear.

Borland Developers Studio BDS 2006 is a much better effort, with nice features influenced by Visual Studio 2005 (The TFlowPanel and the TGridPanel and the placement guides in particular come to mind).

Analysing the numbers of sales must have led Borland to the conclusion that people were just not upgrading.

Last week Nick Hodges, the Delphi product manager had a post on his blog asking “Why Aren’t you upgrading”.

Let’s just say the responses came thick and fast. Last time I checked there were 140 or so responses. Almost all mentioned “quality”. And bafflingly when I checked next Nick had taken down the comments.

Then he put up a new post in which he gave 14 Reasons why you should upgrade. Bafflingly, at #1 was Quality. As the responses show people may agree with points 2 through 14, quality was hotly disputed.

Granted, strides have been made but BDS cannot claim to be a quality release.

But even that can be resolved. The question is, would it help?

When it comes to choosing tools of trade, I believe in being pragmatic. Decide what needs to be done and then choose the best hammer for the nail.

Delphi is an awesome tool for win32 development. The question is, will it fully and natively be able to develop native applications for Vista? Can it consistently leverage the most recent .NET framework?

Coming to .NET, BDS 2006 is another kettle of fish.

In this regards, BDS cannot be an option because:

  1. As a .NET development environment, you can only leverage the .NET Framework 1.1 in your applications. For me, that makes BDS a non starter for my work. The .NET Framework 2 is a significant release of the framework and I’d be crazy to pass up the gains made to stick to a tool on the basis of nostalgia, or passion.
  2. If you have developed PDA applications for the Compact Framework, compared to VS 2005, BDS is again a distant second. Distant. Developing, debugging and deploying.
  3. The instability of the IDE is yet another nail in the coffin. When you have to take a deep breath before debugging … it is not a good thing.
  4. Things like WPF and Avalon are beginning to cross my radar.
  5. With regards to .NET BDS will always be playing catchup to Visual Studio. Right now the Borland team working on the next version of BDS to leverage .NET 2. Microsoft is working on the next Visual Studio that will leverage the .NET Framework 3. You cannot build a better mousetrap than the guy who builds the mice

As long as they maintain their current strategy with regards to .NET, Borland will continue to lose the few .NET developers in the fold.

Strategy

Here  is a radical thought.

Borland should cease any further development of a .NET integrated IDE.

That’s right. They should completely nuke the whole BDS 2006 .NET business. They should concentrate their experience and expertise on developing only two (or 3 IDEs)

  • Borland Delphi, for Win32 Development
  • Borland C++ Builder
  • JBuilder

What about .NET?

Borland should work very very hard to make Delphi, or Object Pascal, a first class citizen of the Visual Studio.NET environment.

Think outside the box and leverage the .NET framework the way RemObjects have with their excellent product Chrome. Using Object Pascal you can develop .NET 2 applications RIGHT NOW and leverage the .NET Framework 2. Totally integrated with the Visual Studio 2005 IDE.

This is something Borland had better look at. Currently Delphi + VCL is a framework on Win32. In the .NET world there already is a framework. What Borland should be thinking of doing is keeping the Delphi language alive.

Building an integrated development environment is not an effective use of time or resources because

  • It is very hard
  • It is very costly
  • Borland will always be playing catchup to Microsoft. They will always be a framework behind

It makes little business or strategic sense to continue to invest in a .NET IDE.

Borland should instead concentrate on making  Delphi a first class language of the .NET environment, completely integrated into the IDE. And leverage Microsoft’s IDE. They’ve already done the hard work. Why re-invent the wheel?

This make sense because

  • They can get back all the Delphi developers who decamped to  .NET. These are very VERY MANY
  • They might even get converts from VB or C#
  • They don’t have to sink vast resources into debuggers, editors, etc
  • Delphi can regain its presence in the development world as a language. Fact of the matter — as a language Delphi and Pascal are dying out
  • They can save the time and resources invested in the .NET IDE and use it to improve the Win32 IDE AND the language
  • They can get considerable sales revenue from a new SKU – Microsoft Visual Studio.NET Delphi Edition, or as an extra language in the Professional, Enterprise  & Team System SKUs
  • They can even refractor the BDS IDE and sell it as an addin for Visual Studio to keep current Delphi users happy as well as getting potential new users. The BDS IDE does have its charms.

The writing’s on the wall. Adapt or perish

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Unexpected Behavior

August 20, 2006

Visual Studio’s immediate window, our old friend, is generally a very powerful debugging aid. A few judicious commands executed there can save hours of manually reading through source code that makes sense on paper on screen.

In fact the only place the immediate window fails to deliver is when dumping the contents of multi-line string variables. In this particular instance, it is a close race  between the immediate window and a chocolate teapot as to who is of less use.

Look at this sample code:

P.S. Yes, that is inline SQL! Sue me!

If you put a breakpoint at the Console.ReadLine() and dump the contents to the immediate window, this monstrosity rears its ugly head:

 

This, needless to say, is not something I generally want. This SQL statement cannot be pasted and executed in Query Analyzer / iSQL / SQL*Plus without forcing me to open another application and wrestling with search and replace and then pasting *that* to the query window.

Why not dump the string as it is?

Aside:

Watching a newbie try to use Windows Media player this weekend made me realize just how hostile it is to completely green users. The more I thought about it the more I realized is that it actually is not as easy to use as it seems!

For  example:

Does this mean the movie is paused and will play if you click the button or it is playing and will pause when you click the button?

I found myself unable to answer what the heck this button does

And what the hell is the second set of maximize, minimize and close buttons for?

Builder

Here is the last update to builder EVER by me. It was a proof of concept and I enjoyed wrestling with the code but  there will be a proper tool from Microsoft eventually. No need for me to lose sleep over it!

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SandCastle Builder

August 7, 2006

[Update #3] – 11 August 0900

Version 1.2 

Apparently (can’t isolate the issue exactly) it works for some people and not for others.

– Logs the commands it executes (so you can see if there are any issues with paths, etc)

– Cleaned up some of the UI elements

[UPDATE # 2] – 9 Aug

Version 1.1

Well, as one is wont to accidentally do, I packaged the debug build rather than the release …. hence the snafu.

I believe SandCastle Builder is working now.

[UPDATE # 1] – 9 Aug

Version 1.1

– Fixed issue of incorrect extension when chosing your own CHM

– Added feature to allow specification of custom footer

[Oringinal]

Yep. Another one.

Joining the bandwagon of individuals keen to build a GUI for Sandcastle is yours truly.

Here are screen shots of Builder

New

Builder

Progress

Builder In Action

Complete

Builder At Rest

What makes mine different?

  • It is “Project” based so you don’t have to keep specifying the assembly, xml file, etc
  • Does not assume SandCastle or the Help Compiler is installed to the default location. It does however assume they are installed somewhere!
  • Reasonably polished UI – don’t you think? 😉
  • All in C# – no batch files (except for a workaround to piping output from one process to another)
  • Does all its work in the temp folder and cleans up after itself
  • Allows you to immediately view the CHM

Do I have any other plans?

Yep

  • Fix the inevitable bugs that MUST be hiding somewhere
  • Capture output from SandCastle’s various executables and log to file
  • Convert builder to a Visual Studio Addin
  • Allow builder to directly build projects & solutions
  • Allow builder to run from console so it can be used by built tools like nant and msbuild

Have a go and let me know what you think by leaving a comment. What i’m keen to know is if it runs at all 🙂

Download SandCastle Builder Here

Download the Manual Here

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Environment NewLine

August 3, 2006

If you are one of those people that put “\r\n” in your strings to indicate a newline, raise your right hand and smack your head.

Why?

1) You are assuming your code will always run on Windows. Unix uses \n alone, Apple (until OS 9) used \r alone. Your code might just end up being compiled under Mono and then what?
2) It looks plain ugly
3) You have to escape the characters again (at least in C# if you’re not using the verbatim operator @). This quickly becomes a pain in the — er –becomes cumbersome when dealing with a lot of text

What should you do?

Simple

string line = string.Format(“And this is the end of the line{0}”, Environment.NewLine);

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