Borland is exiting the IDE business. Wow. On the one hand, I long ago figured out that IDEs weren’t a real business. On the other hand, this is Borland we’re talking about — the last holdout.
Three factors killed the IDE business, and a fourth drove a stake through its heart. None of these, IMO, is the rise of Eclipse; that’s a symptom of the problems, not a cause. Rather, I think the key factors are:
A. Vendors are paid well for run-time products, not development-time. Most categories of “platform software” actually have a major programmer-productivity aspect to their pitch. Microsoft Windows makes device connectivity easy. Application servers make Web connectivity, data integration, load-balancing, and/or failover easy (the reason for buying them has changed frequently). Database management systems are ultimately just big SQL interpreters. Similar stories could be told about other categories, including almost everything in analytics.
And those product categories are often big businesses, because vendor revenue depends on the number of end-users, not the number of developers. Thus, it’s often obvious that value far exceeds expense. By way of contrast, getting the same revenue from developer-based pricing might require tens of thousands of dollars per developer seat, and rightly or wrongly that kind of pricing is very hard to enforce.
There was a period in industry history when technology made it natural to officially have run-time versions of developer tools. This was the “fourth-generation language” period, which arguably lasted from the early 1980s until the mid-1990s or so. But once Java came along, everybody wanted compiled code instead of proprietary interpreters. And that was that.
B. Price competition was brutal. Server-based development tools may have been expensive, but PC-based language products were very cheap. Microsoft’s first product ever was a Basic interpreter; I don’t know the price for sure, but I’m guessing it was a few hundred bucks. Way back in the early/mid-1980s, Borland started out by selling a $49 developer tool, namely a Turbo Pascal compiler. When Microsoft and Borland duked it out in the C++ market in the early/mind-1990s, huge amounts of software documentation showed up for what were rather low-priced products.
But the real killer was Visual Basic. VB conflated the IDE and “language” markets, and imposed language pricing on the development tools market. And that was that. What’s more, a significant fraction of the development tools market was held by the independent DBMS vendors (Oracle, Informix, et al. — and the same had been true in the prerelational era). They wanted account control, with lots of applications built on their DBMS to create lock-in and more server sales. And that was a higher priority for their tools businesses than making a profit. So when it became hard to hold the line against Microsoft tools pricing, Oracle et al. weren’t all that depressed about caving in.
C. Products are obsolete before they were mature. Contributing strongly to the economic problems of the IDE business is that the products usually don’t do that good a job. Oh, in many ways they’re great, and programmers swear by them. But programmers also swear at them, because they commonly do only part of what is necessary. Generally, a new tool will be developed to help with a new need, such as relational DBMS access or GUI client/server interactions or three-tier processing or whatever. But these tools will often be weak at what came before; e.g., Powerbuilder and Visual Basic weren’t very good at industrial-strength scalability. By the time the shiny new tools mature to do a good job at the older requirements, some other platform shift comes along, with yet newer and shinier tools to handle the latest twists.
D. It’s all about collaboration. The latest requirements shift is from supporting individual developers to supporting teams. That makes almost everything about IDEs irrelevant, or at least a commodity. Borland, which has been telegraphing today’s shift for a while, may have made the point most clearly. But you hear similar things from Microsoft and Oracle.
So there you have it. I was perhaps earlier than most in figuring this out, having gotten a very painful education in the point by the commercial failure of my critically acclaimed application development tools opus in the mid-1990s. (It survived as an essential reference for the trade press for years. But not many users ever actually bought it; instead, they just bought Visual Basic and didn’t even consider the more sophisticated products I wrote the guide about.) But I think the whole IT world sees it now.