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Nov 00 Viewpoint

Volume Number: 16 (2000)
Issue Number: 11
Column Tag: Viewpoint

4D/WebSTAR Summit 2000

By William Porter, POLYTROPE, Houston, Texas

An exclusive MacTech report

The 4D/WebSTAR Summit was held October 4-8 in San Diego, California. The weather in San Diego was uncharacteristically gloomy throughout the Summit, but inside the U.S. Grant Hotel, the atmosphere was sunny and warm.

This was the largest gathering of 4D developers ever. According to Mike Erickson of Automated Solutions Group, co-sponsor with 4D, Inc. of this year's Summit, there were almost 450 developers in attendance, from two dozen countries. A dozen third-party vendors displayed their products or services during the Summit. The three-day program consisted of over 70 sessions. Some of these were presented by personnel from 4D, Inc. or WebSTAR and a few were given by third-party vendors who discussed their products. But most were presented by the several dozen independent developers who ensured that the program was grounded not in marketing but in practical problem solving. Best of all, there were more new users than ever before. There was a special track for 4D beginners and a free one-day seminar taught by Liz Delgado designed to bring newbies rapidly up-to-speed.

4D, Inc., president and CEO Brendan Coveney, in his keynote address, reported that the state of the company was good indeed. NASA recently purchased an agency-wide site license for 4D. Projected revenues for fiscal year 2000 come to $28 million, with operating costs of only $6 million. Revenues have grown 80% in the last two years. Increased expenditures on marketing are paying off: 4D, the oldest RDBMS for the Mac, is once again a visible and respected presence in the world of Mac OS database development.

WebSTAR

The acquisition of Starnine, makers of WebSTAR, in March 2000, overnight made 4D, Inc. a major web player. If you weren't paying attention at the time, WebSTAR is the software that the U.S. Army moved its web site to a year ago, after it dumped Microsoft IIS because of its weak security. Exactly how WebSTAR will play into 4D's long-term product strategy remains to be seen. While 4D already has outstanding proprietary tools for web-serving databases, it seems reasonable to expect closer integration between 4D, Inc.'s database and web-server products in the future. But C.J. Holmes, formerly of Starnine and now 4D, Inc.'s director of engineering for WebSTAR, assured me that WebSTAR is not going to be absorbed into 4D as a component, or vice versa. And in an exclusive interview with MacTECH, Brendan Coveney confirmed this, saying that 4D, Inc. remains an "open-systems company" and that WebSTAR will continue to work well with all databases on the Mac. This will be good news for FileMaker Pro developers using Lasso or the FileMaker Web Companion and for users of other back ends like Valentina or PrimeBase.

No release date was given, but attendees were given some hints about what to look for in WebSTAR 5. It was described as a well-behaved application with an instinct for self-preservation; if a child process dies for any reason, the parent process will start a new process automatically. WebSTAR 5 will ship with a bunch of new features, including support for Perl; support for multiple processors; more plug-ins and services such as calendars, forms processing, etc. Tests run with WebBench show spectacular improvements in speed: WebSTAR 4.x runs around 50 connections per second. WebSTAR 5 has been tested at over 420 connections a second or 37 million connections a day. These are some serious web-serving numbers. Finally, they have WebSTAR 5's core features running under OS X already as a BSD application.

In honor of the company's new product, there was a special track devoted to WebSTAR and other issues of interest to web administrators; about 50 attendees registered for that track specifically. One web administrator attending his first Summit told me that the presentation on WebSTAR Mail DNS Settings had been worth the price of the Summit in itself. Other presentations in this track were of a more general nature, dealing with XML and Perl and a detailed technical discussion of the Internet's infrastructure. I attended an excellent introduction to XML by developer whose company publishes a server-side XML interpreter. Why wait for browser support? he asked. Why indeed?

4D does the Web, too

Almost a third of the presentations at the Summit dealt with the Web. On the 4D side of the Summit, there were several presentations devoted to the new web features in 4D 6.7 (forthcoming), especially the Web Assistant, the first of the 4D "components." The Web Assistant makes it easier than ever to build Web sites using 4D alone. The keynote showed a demo of another component, a tool for building online stores, code-named "Yapee." (One rumor had it that this is the name of the French developer.) 4D 6.7 supports SSL. A set of extensions for Macromedia Dreamweaver are in development right now, to give 4D developers the ability to use Dreamweaver's outstanding web page-design tools to build pages that will display data dynamically drawn from 4D databases. In our interview, Brendan Coveney told me that 4D, Inc. is deeply committed to the Web's future, which lies with dynamic, database-driven web sites.

Other presentations delved into topics like "4D as a WAP Server" and "e-Commerce with 4D." The latter was presented by the maker of Web Server 4D (WS4D), a remarkable off-the-shelf web serving and e-commerce application which proves almost better than anything else how powerful and flexible 4D's programming language is: WS4D—in many ways a competitor of 4D now—is itself programmed entirely in 4D! In the "beginner's track," I presented a well-attended session on using 4D as a backend for Lasso-driven sites. Not in the beginner's track, 4D maestro David Adams gave an advanced full-day seminar in 4D Web techniques after the main part of the Summit.

4D 6.7 and OS X

In the keynote, Brendan Coveney played a snazzy little game called Time Matrix, written in 4D by the folks at DataCraft. (DataCraft is the publisher of Foundation, a brilliantly designed shell widely used by 4D developers.) Time Matrix was run first under OS 9, then it was run again, under OS X beta. In view of the obvious complexity of the underlying code, the remarkable thing was not that the second demo sported the Aqua look, but that not a single line of code had to be rewritten.

The folks at 4D, Inc. are committed to (if not downright obsessed with) making sure that old systems don't break when new ones are released. I was assured by several different developers on different occasions that it is possible to open a 1987-vintage version 1.0 database in the year 2000 under 4D version 6.5 and that it will in all likelihood run fine with few or no changes. After demonstrating that the core 4D application itself will make the transition to OS X without a hitch, Coveney went on to tell developers that 4D, Inc. is working very hard to make sure that it is as easy as possible for plug-in developers to port their products to OS X.

AreaList Pro is dead. Long live PowerView!

I am not an old-enough hand with 4D to know the story first-hand, but I have heard it many times from experienced developers. They sit down and get a far-away look when they start to tell you about it, the way veterans do before talking about The War. It goes something like this: There used to be a third-party plug-in for 4D called AreaList Pro, which was relied upon by every serious 4D developer. AreaList provided a set of life-saving functions not built into 4D, all of them derived from its central trick of displaying arrays on screen. AreaList was a VBD (very big deal).

Then one dark day, the company that had been publishing AreaList and several other crucial 4D tools decided that its own business plan no longer included 4D and that it would stop developing and supporting these tools. To hear the old-timers tell it, it was like waking up tomorrow to discover that you could not buy gasoline for your car—anywhere.

At last year's Summit in Chicago, 4D, Inc. promised developers that it would solve the problem caused by AreaList's death, and this year, they delivered on the promise by announcing PowerView, a new tool in 6.7 which combines the features of ALP and 4D Chart (4D's spreadsheet plug-in). The demo of PowerView showed it to be fast and flexible. One part of the demo consisted of a ballet of formatted table cells that Brendan Coveney had to assure the audience had not been done in Flash! Several developers I talked to thought that, while the preview of 4D running under OS X was good news, the announcement of a replacement for AreaList Pro was the news that mattered most to them.

To me as a rookie 4D user still spending most of my time on the bench, it was interesting to discover that there are still companies brave enough to make promises and at least equally interesting to see a company actually keep them.

Everything Else

The rest of the program was nicely diversified. One presenter in the WebSTAR track warned his audience that his talk was going to get a bit geeky. He needn't have bothered. The entire conference was unashamedly geeky. The level of discourse among the attendees was consistently high. Even the beginners track included presentations likely to make expert FileMaker users like me sweat a little, such as "Parameter Passing and Generic Code," "Accelerated Text Parsing with BLOBs," "Pointers on Pointers," and "Multi-Process Programming." Other presentations on 4D were similarly diversified, dealing with memory management, interprocess data transfer, and localization of applications. I was not able to attend the latter, but its presence on the program reminded me of 4D's international character. 4D, Inc. in the U.S. is a wholly-owned subsidiary whose parent country is in France. 4D has long provided extraordinary support for international users, including full-support for double-byte languages like Chinese and Japanese.

A few of the sessions were bleeding edge. I attended a session on using speech-recognition and synthesis as a replacement for the conventional UI. The session was fascinating, especially when the presenter's demo behaved as expected. I left feeling that I might personally wait a year before worrying about this subject again.

Because you have complete control over the UI (including menus) and because you can compile your code into double-clickable programs, 4D is a great tool for developing vertical market applications. A couple panel sessions provided detailed advice for commercial developers from those who have already been there and done that. I personally learned that we at Polytrope have been doing almost everything wrong.

Windows?

The casual observer could easily have gotten the impression that this was a convention attended exclusively by Macintosh users. C.K. Hahn, Senior Director, Developer Technical Services, Apple Computer, Inc., spoke briefly during the keynote to give Apple's blessing on 4D, Inc.'s commitment to OS X. Apple sponsored the wonderful Internet café for Summit attendees, complete with an Airport base station. Many of the sessions dealt specifically with the Mac OS. My completely unscientific guess is that a good eighty percent or more of the attendees would consider themselves primarily Mac OS users. And yet 4D is a cross-platform product. More than that: Brendan Coveney told me that roughly 75% of their sales are for the Windows platform (mainly 4D Server for NT boxes)! This paradox leads me to two observations. First, it appears that developing 4D databases on the Mac and deploying them under Windows is easy and reliable. If there were a lot of problems in this arrangement, I would have expected to see at least a couple presentations like "Pot-holes to avoid with the Windows compiler" or "Memory Management under Windows NT." Second, the market — not just 4D, Inc.'s market, but my market, the developers' market — is Windows.

The Big News

On the last day, I asked everybody I talked to what the big news of the Summit was. Some said it was the acquisition of WebSTAR by 4D, Inc. Some mentioned PowerView. Some pointed to the web features of the forthcoming 4D 6.7. Many talked with excitement about seeing 4D running under OS X. But when I asked Brendan Coveney what the big news was, he did not hesitate to give me the low-tech answer that I think is the best of all: "The big news of the Summit is that the 4D community is alive and growing and the atmosphere is tremendously positive."

Credits and More Information

Many thanks to those credited above and to many others not credited for speaking to me. Special thanks to John Steele of Elucidata in Fort Worth for his clarifications with regard to AreaList Pro. The official 4D Summit web site is at <http://www.4DSummit.com>, but you need a password to get into the really useful pages. No password is required to get into developer and Summit presenter Bryan Green's unofficial celebration of the Summit: <http://www.4DSummitnotes.com>.

 
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