Monday, May 21, 2007

Who is the Powersoft of the SOA era?

Dennis Byron asks "Who is the Powersoft of the SOA era?" here. Many companies claim that their tool is the PowerBuilder for SOA (BEA WebLogic Workshop, Above All Studio and others). And VCs would love to find and fund the next Powersoft. This means that Powersoft remains an iconic company 13 years after it disappeared. And since I worked with and for Powersoft since 1992 I feel I should write here my version of how Powersoft Corporation became the leader of client/server tools market:

Right time, right place

There were three megatrends happening at the same time in the early nineties:

• PC with MS Windows 3.1,
• Local Area Networks,
• SQL Databases

and Powersoft happened to be right in the middle of these three trends. Several other companies were building c/s development tools at the same time but only Powersoft got it right. It may sound strange from today’s perspective but while the competitive products supported MS Windows as only one of the client operating systems PowerBuilder supported Windows natively. And as the result it was visibly more user friendly.


The key component of PowerBuilder was an object called DataWindow. DataWindow allowed developers to generate screens and reports quickly without deep understanding of SQL. But the fact that the finished application had to be deployed on every single client machine quickly became a management nightmare - so called "DLL Hell". Powersoft tried to solve some of the problems with the server-side version of PowerBuilder but it was a proprietary solution and the EJB standard did not appear until 1997.

DataWindow was also able to search systables of SQL databases for simple metadata. It was fairly trivial but it worked really well in demo applications. The demo presenter was able to connect to the target database and to build a simple form in the matter of minutes. To the audience that was used to COBOL programming it was “indistinguishable from magic”.

Business model

The biggest weakness of Powersoft was its business model. The company was selling development licenses of PowerBuilder and there were not enough developers in the world to sustain the initial sales growth. And PowerBuilder based application did not generate any runtime revenues at all. Database vendors have much sounder business model - Oracle and Sybase can give away development tools as a loss leader and charge for the deployment of their database. And so it was only a matter of time before one of these companies would acquire Powersoft:

In a surprise announcement officially released at 7:30 a.m., EST, on November 14, 1994, Sybase revealed its plans to acquire Powersoft in an exchange-of-stock deal. With a cash equivalent valuation of approximately $945 million.


The initial focus on MS Windows that helped the company so much initially became a liability by 1995 when Netscape went public and application developers started to move to the web. There was an attempt to build a Netscape DataWindow plug-in but it was obvious that Powersoft days are over. Only 10 months after Sybase spent over $900M! Some of the people behind PowerBuilder tried to repeat the success at SilverStream. I happened to be one of the early investors in SilverStream but I did not like what I saw and I decided to build NetBeans instead.


I don’t believe there will be a Powersoft of SOA era - company worth a billion dollar based on $3,000 development tool. And the main reason may be the need for standardization that makes the differentiation much more difficult these days. But who wouldn't want to build the next Powersoft?


Kris Tuttle said...

Maybe the "next Powersoft" won't be a development tool per se but more of an application provider.

Some have put in this context with their application exchange model.

If companies could easily satisify application requirements in the right service-oriented way it could make life different for business.

Things seem very fragmented with major incumbents like Oracle, SAP and Microsoft on the applications and DB side so it's hard to see a giant shift happening there soon.

Roman Stanek said...

If that is the case we should probably ask a slightly different question: "Who is the SAP of the SOA era?"