BEA tries open-source tack with Workshop Java tool

BEA Systems Inc. plans to release the source code for part of its WebLogic Workshop Java development environment, a move that it hopes will spur wider use of the product and eventually steer more customers toward its WebLogic family of Java server software, the company said Wednesday.

Workshop aims to make it easier for Java programmers to build enterprise applications by mimicking some of the visual, drag-and-drop features in Microsoft Corp.'s popular Visual Studio tools. Rivals such as IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc. are also creating tools to make Java easier to use, something viewed as important for the technology's continued success.

Under a project called Beehive, BEA plans by midyear to release part of the underlying code for Workshop under a BSD open-source license. It will certify the code for use with the Apache Software Foundation's Tomcat Web server in order to allow developers to use Workshop to build applications that run on Tomcat, said Scott Dietzen, BEA's chief technology officer. Currently, applications created in Workshop run only on BEA's WebLogic products.

Dietzen positioned the move as good for the Java community as a whole. Opening a development framework like Workshop to more developers should help make Java more competitive with Microsoft Corp.'s .Net technology, he said. Open-source developers will be able to create other versions of Workshop for commercial application servers from the likes of IBM and Oracle Corp., he said.

The move is also designed to steer more customers toward BEA's own WebLogic family of server products at a time when the company's market share has been declining. Developers often begin pilot projects using Tomcat, and BEA hopes that by giving those developers the option to use Workshop, their familiarity with the product will lead them to migrate to BEA's fee-based products when it comes time to deploy their applications, Dietzen said.

"The bottom line is Beehive is intended to accelerate the proliferation of Java, particularly for Web and services-oriented-architecture applications, by simplifying development. We believe this is going to expand the Java market overall and attract more users to BEA," he said.

BEA hasn't decided yet who will host the open-source project, Dietzen said.

Shawn Willett, a principal analyst at Current Analysis Inc., said BEA is cleverly trying to establish broader support for the Workshop framework while skirting the Java Community Process (JCP), the established process for setting Java standards. However, the company is also taking a "calculated risk," he said.

"The danger is that Apache's open-source servers ... could benefit from this to the extent it cuts into WebLogic sales," Willett said. In other words, Beehive could potentially lead more developers to Tomcat -- as well as the Apache Software Foundation's Geronimo application server -- without leading them back to BEA's own products, he said.

Still, he said, Project Beehive should help BEA get its software into the hands of more developers than if it were available only to WebLogic users, and BEA apparently views that risk as acceptable, he said.

Dietzen said that the JCP takes up to 18 months to approve new Java standards and that promoting its Workshop developer framework through the open-source community is a faster way for BEA to establish broader support for the technology.

The effort appears likely to clash with IBM's Eclipse open-source Java tools project, although BEA officials insisted that Beehive will be complementary rather than a competitor to that effort.

Workshop consists of two parts: the development environment itself and an "application framework" or "runtime," which is the part that allows developers to reuse Java code and abstract away the complexities of Java 2 Enterprise Edition. It's that application framework that BEA is opening the source code for, not the development environment, officials said.

For that reason, BEA will be a complement, rather than a competitor, to the Eclipse project because Eclipse is a development environment that could also work with Beehive, said Cornelius Willis, who heads developer relations at BEA. IBM wasn't immediately available to comment.

The announcement came just a few days after BEA reported less-than-stellar financial results for its fiscal quarter ended April 30. Its total revenue climbed 11% to $262.6 million, but revenue from the sale of software licenses fell by 2%, lower than BEA had anticipated. It blamed the ongoing transition to a new version of its software and disruption in its North American sales channel.

In other bad news, Gartner Inc. reported last week that BEA's share of revenue from the Java application server market declined in 2003, while its main rival, IBM, saw its share increase.

BEA had been expected to make the Beehive announcement next week at its eWorld customer conference in San Francisco. Willis dismissed a suggestion that the announcement was made to provide some positive news for the company. BEA has been hatching the plan since November, he said, and wanted to give developers time to digest the news before the show.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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