Blind leading the blind: Is BEA following others in pursuit of mortals?

Blind leading the blind: Is BEA following others in pursuit of mortals?

Summary: I woke up this morning to news that BEA is now the latest company to jump on the drag-n-drop programming for non-programmers bandwagon by announcing that in the coming months, it will make available some yet-to-be-named-or-branded tools that "let businesspeople create and make changes to Java code." Sounds a bit vaporwarish to me.

TOPICS: Software
I woke up this morning to news that BEA is now the latest company to jump on the drag-n-drop programming for non-programmers bandwagon by announcing that in the coming months, it will make available some yet-to-be-named-or-branded tools that "let businesspeople create and make changes to Java code." Sounds a bit vaporwarish to me. Congrats to's Martin Lamonica on the scoop by the way. Shortly after spotting the story, a search of Google News revealed that he broke the news by a long shot.

One of the problems for purveyors of solutions that depend on the vitality of the .Net and Java ecosystems is that the most important part of those ecosystems -- the population of developers developing for them -- isn't growing that much. Proponents of Java for example, have been citing the same 3 million developers for as long as I can remember. As it turns out, there are only so many of us with the stomach for application development.

Sun might argue that the presence of mobile Java (officially called J2ME) in phones and handhelds has given birth to an entire new generation of Java-based applications. But who's writing them? Answer? The same people who were writing the non-mobile ones before. Trust me, if there was any significant growth in the number of Java developers because of the mobile revolution, we'd be hearing about it. We're not. .Net developers are harder to put our finger on because it's not clear what a .Net developer is. Is it someone who uses Visual Studio .NET? Do end users with the .Net Framework on their desktops count (after all, some of them have written Office macros that rely on .Net)?

As evidenced by their never ending pursuit of mortals who'd much sooner slit their wrists that write a line of C# or Java code (or pick up a good O'Reilly book for some bedtime reading), app dev vendors like BEA with today's non-announcement announcement, Microsoft with it's Express line of tools, and Sun with projects like Rave (now called Java Studio Creator) have been looking for a way to demystify software development to the point that Grandma can do it. OK, that's an exaggeration. Lamonica characterizes BEA's target as "nontechnical businesspeople." But why not Grandma?

While there are hundreds if not thousands of smaller players who have been chipping away at this problem for a while -- particularly in the area of business process management -- the biggies like BEA, IBM, Microsoft, and Sun know that certain spoils await the first one amongst them that manages a breakthrough to non-programmers en masse. For example, in typical ecosystem fashion, an increase in demand for a particular company's development tools should generate demand for software infrastructure solutions such as application servers. Knowing that such a promised land could await Java (in the bigger scheme of the Java vs. .Net war) , Sun has said that it wants to triple the size of the Java community. Somehow.

This is wishful thinking (if us mortals are the key to such a goal). Even worse, the blind are leading the blind (see Java camp take cue from Microsoft). As I've written before, I still believe that click n' drag IT will continue to elude us for the foreseeable future and now, thanks to what I can tell from the BEA announcement, I think I've figured out why. The question will take an entire column to answer (so yes, that's in the works), but the basic premise of my argument is that if you want to lead a horse to water, don't show it the way to desalination plant like all -- well almost all -- of today's vendors are doing. Lest you misinterpret my intentions in this blog entry (you could say that I'm helping vendors do more business), I'm not. Although I can write code and have done it before, I'd rather be more mortal about it, save myself some time, and let someone else do the heavy lifting. I can't.

Like I said, this is a topic that deserves column-like exploration. But before writing that column, I'd like to hear your thoughts. At the end of my last column on the matter, there were some thought provoking TalkBacks. It's a discussion that's worth continuing if we want our solution providers to wake up an smell the coffee.

Topic: Software

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  • Nowing syntax is not the problem

    The idea that you're going to get the normal person to program has always been ludicrous. Having simpler graphical development programs make developers more productive because they have more time to spend on things that matter, but it was never meant to make Grandma a code warrior. The average Joe barely knows how to use their computers and network properly, let alone know how to design it. Knowing the syntax of a programming language doesn?t make you a good programmer, understanding the bigger picture and the flow of the application does and that is the skill that the average person lacks.
    • indeed - syntax is not the problem

      This issue is remarkably similar to the problem that people in the publishing industry have faced for years. Users (and management) have been conditioned to believe that "normal" people can't understand markup languages or that working with markup is less productive than working in a visually rich view of a document.

      Like many things, the reality is more complex. If people can't understand markup then they presenting the same information with a different metaphor (fonts, colors, indents) likely won't solve your problem. And if they really don't understand the concept of markup, they shouldn't be working on your content....

  • Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

    Hell-oh! Is there anybody there? I've been writing in response to ZDNet journalism for a few years now. I thought that I had, at the very least, got across one very important lesson to ZDNet readers [my incentive: I was originally educated as an engineer, and most ZDNet readers (from their posts) are clearly engineering majors]. But looking at this column perhaps I have, myself, a lot to learn about journalism?

    I came into this industry through my engineering studies, but graduated quickly to business ? specifically marketing and, later, consulting.

    I cannot even begin to count the number of times that I have said something like: ? ? but ?? in a ZDNet feedback sentence that encompassed some aspect of business imperative, business force, or business constraint. By doing so, I believed I was getting across a very important lesson to my engineering fraternity: GET BUSINESS ORIENTED OR DIE.

    This story makes me wonder, why bother? David, you said that you woke up to this; Dear God I hope so, because it?s about time.

    For those who are new to this, please bear with me. The problem (and, yes, it is a problem as will become clear). For many years now I, as a consultant, have had to listen to a litany of abuse from top business people ? against ICT (Info & Comms Tech?y) professions of every kind. I am not alone ? consultants must compare notes if they are, themselves, to survive. The ?problem? nearly always manifests itself as a communication problem, but sticking with e specific problem identified here?

    If I go into specifics, even for a limited application, I will fall asleep before I have finished typing. Not forgetting (ahem), I am a married man with a married man?s obligations?

    So, to conclude quickly?

    Business people are bored witless by the ICT professions? explanations for why they can?t do something. Specifically, they don?t understand why:
    - It is so difficult to outsource something which is simply ?administration?;
    - Moves and changes take ?so? long?;
    - The ICT professions only seem to know why innovations ?can?t be done?; and so
    - on, and on, and ?

    For me, Microsoft?s VB was the leading edge of a revolution. From a business person?s point of view: ?I don?t care if you have to buy three more servers to do this ? it?s a lot easier than trying to persuade you guys to do it with what you have, and/or waiting three months for it to happen.?

    Yes, it really is that simple ? and please, no bleeding heart comebacks from ?senior? IT Managers saying that IT infrastructure needs sophisticated management (if only?). If most of ZDNet?s readers are not switching on to the need to understand the (bigger) business issues, someone like me will be coming along and , very soon, will export your job [not necessarily overseas ? most will remain in the same country as your current employer.]. Or, to put that another way; In the short term your job is probably safe, after a year?

    So get real people ? the number of developers supporting either of the two main platforms has not changed because, just as David realised, they are finite in number, and, (the professionals at least) know that an uncompromising support of one platform limits their market and says about the same about them as membership of the KKK.

    But even being non-partisan, as David says, is not enough. IBM, Sun, BEA, TIBCO, Oracle and Microsoft (just naming a few minor players that I know something about) are chasing a dream, and for why? ONLY BECAUSE THEIR MOST SENIOR CUSTOMERS ARE TELLING THEM THAT THIS IS WHAT THEY WANT!

    Forget the arguments over C to C# versus Java, or J2EE versus .NET, or whatever. This is not about technology, THIS IS ABOUT BUSINESS. Which is to say, it is not about the ?Blind Leading the Blind? but about the one-eyed man leading the blind where he wants them to go. If you still haven?t guessed:
    - In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king;
    - The only one with even a partial vision in business is a businessman (i.e. non-IT);
    - Because IT is blind (most of the time, to business issues), why would the one-eyed man care if he leads you over a cliff?


    So get real, businesses want to cut the time between business idea and business execution ? and how did you help with that today?

    VB, despite all its (mostly ?technical?) shortcomings allows me (a business person) to quickly create a business solution. So what if, later, I have to give up what I developed to the ICT guys so that they can make it scalable, efficient, cost effective, robust, integrated, industry standardised (read: industry credible), etc. , etc? and this would be a problem because?

    By the same token, a new, possibly better, way of doing this from BEA is bad because? Forget it guys, this thought process just isn?t going to happen.

    I really, really, have to go now. This is sad because this story means I am losing my will to post to ZDNet. I have enjoyed being opinionated. But, on the other hand, on this evidence ZDNet does not even appear to be a good way to communicate with a ZDNet contributor.

    Goodbye ? at least for a while.

    p.s. I reserve the right to continue to be outraged over ludicrous software patents ? lobby your congressman today!
    Stephen Wheeler
    • Missing the boat

      This is not about business in the long term, this is about enabling people, the problem is that people and companies think that the primary issue is business driven. Enabling people allows business to be driven.
  • This is such a bad idea...

    Fundamentally, the reason you have "businesspeople" and "programmers" as separate functions are not becuase of the crazy syntax and the technical knowledge, but because they are people of very different mindsets.

    Unfortunately, the programmer-types get so caught up in the all the technical minutiae that they usually lose focus of why they're there - to help someone make money. The "business" people are so focused on making that money, though, that they lose track of the discipline and methodology that's required to make a good idea scalable and sustainable.

    While I applaud the recent intentions to make writing code easier, this kind of drag-n-drop scenario usually leads to fragmented and inconsistent systems - but yes, you can build them at a fraction of the cost or time you did before!
  • Coding is the easy part . . .

    In the process of developing an application, I have found that the actual act of coding is pretty much straight forward. Yes, most times boring, but getting the job coded really is not all that hard. Where the real challenge lies is in translating a process that you want to automate into a system that winds up being coded into bits and bytes that can be used by everyday people. It is this act of analyzing a process and making sense of it that takes a very specialized sort of mind set. I compare it to a scene in the movie "The Rainman" where Dustin Hoffman sees a pile of spilled toothpicks and blurts out "82, 82, 82 . . . toothpicks . . . 246 total" - the number of toothpicks laying there on the floor.

    Dustin Hoffman portrayed your typical savant in The Rainman and the problem with most savants is that they suffer from extreme autism. Amazingly brilliant yet completely unable to relate to others what is going on inside of their heads. Most programmers suffer from a similar phenomenon. While they can see the problem in their head and make complete sense out of apparently random situations, they often have great difficulty in explaining what it is that they see to others. This is something that I refer to as lack of "user empathy". As a result, they often wind up creating applications that get the job done but are completely confusing to mortal man.

    I believe that this represents the real challenge in creating automated development systems that everyday non-programmers can use. It will have to have the analytical abilities of a savant and at the same time the communication skills of a kindergarten teacher so that it can provide an interface that the end user can understand. Since we have no clue as to what makes a savant tick and most programs out there fall far short of providing "beautifully simplistic" user interfaces, I dare say that we are a long way away from having something that does this for us automatically.
    • well said

      Thanks for the good insight.
    • Make something for the business people

      It ought to be possible to generate a tool that can assess (and even create) business logic, then execute that logic. Often, the initial challenge and struggle for developers and business analysts is to understand and use a common (human) language when discussing the details of a project.

      When I studied Computer Science during the 1970s, the biggest challenges at that time were performing proper systems analysis to determine what kind of system (application(s)) to write. Doing proper systems analysis involved interviewing business owners and collecting information about the system they wanted to be created.

      Much has changed in terms of both software available and the tools and methodologies we use. But there still seems to be a rather large disconnect between developers and business processes.

      Effective tools to bridge that gap ought to be things we look for. I'm not saying we don't have anything, but that's where big improvements are still needed. I don't think we need to dumb down the processes, what we need are effective mechanisms for the business expert to record their knowledge so that it can be effectively used. Back in the seventies we called this artificial intelligence. Our systems are fast and powerful enough to do a great deal of so-called artificial intelligence, but our languages and tools have not all progressed past the theoretical artificial languages that were academically developed long ago. We're starting to see this kind of stuff emerge again, perhaps this is finally the right time.
  • Missing the boat

    I stand by my original statements...

    Missing the boat

    Boy, you have hit the nail on the head. I have a little more to say in general about this.

    I have to say that the producers of programming tools/software such as Microsoft, Borland, Sun, Macromedia, and IBM (and others)...etc have so far missed the boat on providing the ability of "normal" or even "power" users to use any programming tools.

    Think about your "normal" baseline neighborhood user. They surf the net, they do e-mail, they IM, they do homework, they do research, they manage their contact/address books, they do their family tree stuff, they using mapping software for directions, they create artwork, they may create a outside deck or landscaping plan, they manage home finances, they make a calendar, they use reference programs such as dictionaries, they use training programs for learning music or languages, they print and FAX things, they play games, they manage and organize personal information, they store and display/play digital pictures and music, they occasionally use a loaded suite such as MS works, MS Office using mostly spreadsheets, presentation software and word processors.

    To them the computer is like a microwave. Cooking some kinds of veggies or popcorn in a microwave is good, easy and saves time, but I wouldn't want to cook a whole roast in it when I have a regular oven or an outside grill. Why? Because it tastes better that way, it may take longer, but the results are better.

    Oh, and here is the kicker...they outnumber the "savvy" and "power" users, by quite a large margin (lets guess-timate 10 to 1). If you are a programmer, you are out numbered by even a larger margin (lets guess-timate at least 100 to 1). I?m sure someone has a study on this somewhere or maybe not.

    Oh, and a couple of other things;
    If they are currently using Microsoft Windows they don?t want to try anything else such as a Mac Os or Linux. (Go ahead, take a poll). You may get some of them to budge when bringing up price, but go ahead and take away Microsoft Windows from them and see what happens.

    They cannot program their computers to do anything and are typically unaware that they could if they wanted to. Their computers are basically being used as storage devices, with some content creation and viewing. Again, it?s easy to create content today, what would be your ?guess-timate? of the percentage of programming tools for end users versus content creation or viewing tools? 98% content, 2% programming?

    Sure there are some that want to program, or may have a need where they know a computer can help them perform it, but there is no easy starting point. Watch the look on a "normal" user's face when you show them an "easy" programming language tool such as or Java.

    From a business users perspective, in my opinion, the reason Microsoft Access is so popular, is because since about version 2.0 (back in the day), it became very easy to "program" it. By only using wizards you could build a form, with controls, without coding one line. In fact, you could build and share an entire application without coding one line! Finally some power users and normal users could create a program (albeit within the MS Access wrapper) and translate their business process, requirements and data into an application without any help from any IT source or programmer! What a concept! There are other programming type tools that also fit into this, such as Filemaker, Hyper Studio, Hypercard...etc.

    Sure, these kinds of applications had problems. A power user and normal user could lay out tables, keys and relationships in a manner that would make a current DBA cringe. But there was a far more powerful force at work here, people became empowered. Using buckets of money, they bought millions of copies of software, making the software producers rich.

    In the heady days of the late 90?s, the IT organization came into power via finance organizations and squashed this rebellion using the ultimate weapon of cost and holding shields such as ?scalable?, ?standards?, ?business case? and ?ROI?. But there were still some rebels that squeaked through. This certainly impacted your business?s IT department. Ask your DBA, web master or IT manager about the time they were "forced" by the business owners to manage a non-IT user?s application or bring it online. The business owners didn't care about the needs of IT, they simply stated "it works for us; this is what we want? and occasionally stated that ?they didn?t want IT screwing this one up?. Oh?My?Gosh, the thought of it! Although IT organizations stated that they would manage IT, what they were not prepared to do, was to be enablers. In some corporate cases, this was addressed and acted upon. In others, it wasn?t.

    So back to the Microsoft's, IBM's, Sun?s. Macromedia?s and Borland?s (and others) who are currently missing the boat. Based upon the heady days of the late 90?s they have given up on the normal consumer type user. They feed them applications, not programming tools. They have given in to the IT organizations who must manage cost, via manageability, via time, via resources. This has ostracized the majority of computer users from programming.

    There is one major change from the heady late 90?s, and that is the IT organization is no longer the sole holder of the title ?digital glitterati?. The normal users have learned quite a bit since then. Every one of them probably has their own home computer (not always the case in the late 90?s). If the IT organization doesn?t help them, they have learned to how to fly under the radar of the IT organization to get things done the way they want them done (ever just find a server in someone?s office). Why? The IT organization won?t do what they want them to do. In the end, IT organizations are not perceived to be a corporate amenity, or a corporate department such as HR or finance. They are perceived to be enablers, and when IT organizations fail at this job, the groups they serve are quite honestly disappointed and discouraged from further use. The ?business? people then pull up their boot straps and find ways around it.

    Hey, these power users and normal users don't want to know anything about a function or an array. They don't need or want to write any code at all. They don't need or want anything too complicated to use. They don?t care about platforms. They don't want to attend training to learn to programming unless they absolutely have to. They don't need to be able to program a computer to fully integrate two separate datasets on separate servers. They don?t need the .50 caliber machine gun to hunt squirrels. To start out on version 1.0, just giving them ability to some simple things would be fine. (Maybe without the ability to do some potentially very dangerous things) They can then just build it, or build a prototype to show the IT organization how they want something to work.

    Programming to them is this simple and probably event driven. There are icons and buttons, when I click on them, I want it to do this or that (play a sound, open another form/page, and do something with data). I want to see a list of choices of what I can have this button, or control do, I don?t want to look at separate reference document to figure this out, or be made to memorize anything. When I do this, I am creating something for me or someone else who I may want to share this with (not just via a web page). I may use my own content, which may be text, music, pictures?etc. And hey by the way, I?ve got this cool Pocket PC thing; can I do something with that? Drag and drop might work out fine, or a wizard, whatever makes it easier. The closest thing I?ve seen non-programmers do to attain this is use MS PowerPoint as a ?programming tool?. Now, I want to be clear that I don?t think that we are talking about Microsoft?s ?Bob? here for programming?or maybe I am. I think the difference is that hey, maybe if I learn enough, if I stay interested, I may want the ability to code in the future, or the company that produced it will add more features. Lastly, it should be fairly inexpensive to buy, or be part of my operating system.

    Talk to a good programmer. Ask ?What?s interesting about programming?? When you drive that discussion to the end point, programming is a creative process; it is art to a programmer. I bet that you won?t hear the words ?scalable?, ?standards?, ?business case? and ?ROI?.

    Sure there are technical hurdles which involve learning (a pain in the butt), and you have to deal with users (a really big pain in the butt) but there is something inherently interesting in the process of creation and using a computer to do something for you. It is empowering. I created it. It does something really cool. It contains content that I have created or found. I can share and show it.

    If you are a programmer, and you have created a program for a non-technical someone, there is something inherently satisfying in helping someone realize their visualization of the end result. That feeling you get when they say ?Wow?! ?Let me show this to my boss right away?!

    Selling the ability to program, to programmers, is selling features (which is in part, ease of use, for programmers, not non-programmers) and manageability. Selling the ability to program to non-programmers is selling what makes programming cool and easy. This is the point that Microsoft, IBM, Sun, Macromedia?s and Borland (and others) are missing for the normal user.

    Don?t get me wrong, there are some companies out there that are making some strides. Softwire?s tools comes to mind (although you still need a copy of traditional programming language), and there is a bevy of shareware type tools such as Mediachance?s multimedia builder software.

    What they lack is what the Microsofts, IBMs, Suns, Macromedias and Borlands (and others) have, which is a solid foundation and reputation in creating and supporting programming languages. It is disappointing.

    Remember, these are the normal users that out number all the other ?technical? users. Remember, this is an extremely large customer base that is waiting. Someone may be in the position to make buckets of money.
    • Missing the Boat

      The biggest disaster to hit major IT shops is Access. People started putting extremely valuable company data, taking thousands of company-paid hours to collect, into poorly designed databases that were never backed-up. The oafs using this stuff then went ballistic when they lost everything in a hard disk failure and blamed IT. Or when they wanted to transfer it to that shiny, new system they bought without IT help and found fatal incompatibilities.
      In my industry (Big Pharma), systems must certain standards required by the FDA; Access doesn't.
      So here we are again, some forty years after FARGO, RPG, Mark IV, QBE, Genasys...well, the list of failed user-driven system generators is quite long. The point is simply this: the talents of analysis, design, programming, training and implementation are unlikely to be replaced by a program.
      • Missing the Boat

        So why did they put data somewhere else or work with you to solve the business issue? Because the major IT shop couldn't support their needs fast enough or didn't have a means to communicate the issues or any policies associated with desktop database creation. Also, your absolutely wrong about Access being FDA compliant. As you should know, any electronic means is supported by part 11, FDA compliancy is defined by your company's definition of complaincy and ability to prove the process is followed, and change control is in place, not whether or not an particular database development program is compliant, unless your company determines via standards that a particular platform won't be used.
  • Blind Leading The Blind

    There is a larger issue here that has not been listed. Most serious applications that are collaborative require a Relational Database Manager. Is BEA, Sun or IBM going to develop a way to allow the non-programmer to add tables or columns to existing tables. If the programming is non-trivial that must happen. This brings up the problem with replicating databases, pushing the changes accross the enterprise, etc. I can't mention names and products but I am currently involved in that problem. The changes are easy to make using Visual Basic, getting some IT council to approve the the change is a different matter.

    This capability maybe OK for small localized requirements but not for the Enterprise. It is much more than a programming issue.
  • Drag 'n Drop: the executive way

    A good visual tool kit for developing enterprise applications is long due. And there is much scope for a break-through product that can do the 'trick'. I belive it is in best interest of the company that 'functional experts' should work on most of the parts than a technical expert. By that I do not mean present developer base will be reduced, instead we may have a new 'functional developer' profile joining the club.
  • An example?

    What could be an example of a drag and drop programming language? What types of applications would you be able to build? It seems like this idea is way too easy to want, but a lot harder to build and implement. Let's hear some possible examples of

    1.) how this would be accomplished
    2.) What type of applications you would be able to create.
  • Drag and drop writing

    Anyone can write an article that says nothing. And anyone can write a program that does nothing. It takes skill, training, ability, talent, etc. in *either* domain to produce an functioning and useful artifact that meets its goals.

    When I can construct a coherent, persuasive article by magically dragging text into it without knowing anything about writing, then I'll believe that we can have drag and drop programming.

    (And no, this wasn't a flame about this article or any other. I've been writing and programming both for over 40 years, and the difficulties are similar.)
  • Theory first

    Not so much blind as in the dark. Concentrate on some real
    theory and we might move from the dark ages.
  • Why IT is not an enabler

    Because it's not supposed to be.

    Yes, any enterprise's IT department should be supplying all computer (hardware, software, etc) needs, answering the IT demands made by the enterprise's units, and possibly supplying solutions to those needs that the units were not even aware of (I don't mean creating needs, but digitally streamlining their operations, supplying new tools, etc.).

    Of course that's what they should be doing, after all that is IT's raison d'etre.

    However, that is not ALL of IT's raison. It's not just about *supplying* systems, it's more about *controlling* those systems. Obviously, no one likes to be "controlled", especially not "Department Heads", or whatever.
    Yet that is precisely their main purpose: be it a lowly clerk or the Senior VP of whatever, IT is controlling their software. (At least the business software, but nowadays, all sw is business sw, even email.)

    The IT department is responsible for all digital data, therefore it should properly be in their hands. With all the regulations nowadays, if a certain departmental Excel file is required, and IT can't produce it because, well, it was only on someones pc, who they gonna come talking to?

    Expecting the IT department to be "enabling" all other units to do whatever the .... they want with digital data is kind of like expecting the office of the CFO to allow all departments to do whatever they want with the money that they supply them with. Viewing the IT department as just a supplier of IT is equivalent to viewing the CFO as a supplier of funds.

    It is clear that this is not the case, nor should it be. IT is a company resource, just like finances. The current U.S. regulations make it necessary to track it just as much. Just as the organization expects to answer to the CFO for any use of company funds, and must comply by the rules s/he sets, so must they answer to IT, and abide by their rules.
    THAT is one thing that business can learn from IT - once your data has been digitized and put on a company computer (supplied by IT, accessed with sw supplied by IT), it must be controlled and accounted for by IT; in order to supply THAT, IT must enforce all users to play by their rules.