IBM this week quietly delivered the last piece of its long-promised "Java everywhere" strategy that some observers believe will be one of the company's most critical initiatives for the rest of this decade and into the next.
With the shipment of Java Developer Toolkit 1.1.1 for its S/390 platform, IBM has made good on its promise to provide development tools that now allow corporate developers to create and deploy Java-based applications on their platforms-of-choice, from mainframes to microcomputers, including Windows.
Equally important, in IBM's estimation, is that users now have a top-to-bottom solution for unlocking mission-critical data on IBM hosts and sharing it with users and business partners via the Internet in an attempt to help launch their online businesses.
But how quiet IBM remains about its newly completed strategy could prove to be an important factor. Even when IBM has enjoyed a leadership position technically, time and again it has failed to communicate its message clearly enough or loudly enough to be heard over the marketing din of future rivals such as Microsoft or Oracle.
"I think IBM is well-positioned to accomplish this, but they need to evolve the technology quickly," says Melinda Ballou, a senior analyst at the Meta Group, in Waltham, Massachusetts. "They hold all the technical cards, but it is a matter of marketing and communicating their message."
IBM officials promise they will not stay quiet for long. As early as next month's fall Comdex, the company will begin trumpeting the cross-platform strengths of its Java products and will continue to blare that message through next year.
"With about 70% of the world's business data on IBM servers, it is going to be important for us to get across that merging IT infrastructures with the Web is critical for customers interested in launching killer apps for e-business," said Scott Hebner, marketing manager of application development for IBM's Software Solutions group.
But it may take more than just beating a loud marketing drum for IBM to succeed, even in the short term. The lack of performance across IBM's Visual Age series of tools, according to several users and analysts this week, continues to be one reason why some users are holding off on committing to IBM's overarching Java strategy.
"IBM's [Visual Age] tools are still slow and a bit clumsy compared to the competition's," says John Rymer, director and senior consultant with Upstream Consulting, in Emeryville, California.
"You have to be willing to trade off some sizzle and convenience to get at the benefits of IBM's tools, which is access to arguably the most important legacy data a user has," Rymer added.
"Java's current lack of performance, coupled with the same sorts of problems with Visual Age, [makes] us want to wait a bit longer," says one programmer at a large, Montreal-based bank.
Given that IBM officials believe the real value of Java may reside on servers, IBM will have to overcome another hurdle involving the training of corporate users, in an attempt to create more sophisticated applications vs. what has been created on the client side, according to Rymer.
Some corporate users agree.
"I may have a couple of programmers that could do that sort of development but hardly a fleet of them," says Frank Petersmark, assistant vice president of information technology at Amerisure Companies, in Michigan.
Although IBM has delivered the enabling Java-based technologies across its own platforms, some industry observers believe the company's strategy will not be complete until it delivers the JavaBeans that tie in those platforms such as those offered by Oracle, Microsoft, PeopleSoft, and SAP.
IBM officials counter this, saying that the company is already building support into its tools to support competitor's server-based platforms, including Oracle and Sybase. For instance, IBM is implementing Java Database Connectivity support into Visual Age for Java, which provides support for several server platforms including Oracle and Sybase.
"With Visual Age Generator you can build an Oracle database system and then create JavaBeans for it," Hebner says. "And if you include [IBM's] Component Broker, which will have adapters for other vendors platforms, you can see this isn't just an IBM middleware thought to this."
Separately, Hebner is downplaying the effects of Sun Microsystems' legal battle with Microsoft concerning the latter's implementations of Java.
"Java will be available across all of our platforms and Windows, regardless of what happens with the Microsoft suit," Hebner says.