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3GL vs. 5GL Custom Web Application Development

Software Generational Languages

I read a great article today in which Sinclair Shuller makes an argument for traditional 3GL’s (.NET, Java) versus “new” 4GL (force.com) and 5GL (workxpress.com) platforms. In fact, he questions whether these platforms are more akin to the old Microsoft Frontpage product, which practically speaking, never did much to change website coding.

Let me start by saying up front that I've devoted 10 years of my life to building exactly the type of new platform that he argues against. In fact, we consider it to be a 5th generation development language (5GL) platform for custom web application development. We’ve seen many commercial successes with it, so I make my counter points below with years of practical customer engagements to back me up.

Given that disclaimer, I genuinely think the article and argument was good, and brought up many valid points. I'm writing (I hope constructively!) because where his argument lost strength was when he framed the choice as an "either-or" choice.

There are two fundamental issues to consider when deciding whether a 3GL or a 5GL should be chosen for a particular custom development project and when speculating as to which approach will ultimately “win” the debate.

The first fundamental issue one needs to consider when offering a 3GL solution is simply “what does the customer say?”  Remember, there is a large and underserved SMB market out there, shouting loudly for better and more affordable software solutions. Although representing 40% of the market, these folks have been mostly ignored for decades, simply because 3GL’s couldn’t deliver the flexibility, cost reduction and deployment speed these customers demand.

The second fundamental concern is one of vision, and progress; when one applies some forward vision, do we really think that where we are today is going to be the right way for tomorrow? Are we stuck with our current set of development languages forever?  Obviously, that’s ridiculous, and it is really just a question of who is going to realize competitive advantage by adopting the newer tools first.

Do customers “require” 3GL tools?

The truth is that there are a lot of business cases that demand speed of deployment, cost reduction and flexibility more than they demand fine tuned control over possibly trivial details. I could cite many actual customer examples. In these cases, a 5GL PaaS approach is the only approach that fits those needs, and the 3GL approach to custom web application development strictly does not.

And that’s not to mention ISVs. Folks who want to build a business around a piece of software they publish have some very serious hurdles to overcome when building on a 3GL. When potential ISVs choose a platform as a base, they become free to focus on building a business, and can worry less about technology.

What a 5GL PaaS does in those examples is give the customer or ISV software they simply couldn't practically deploy under "older" 3GL models. When faced with a choice of getting the software they need within their budgets and time frames, versus not getting any software at all, the 5GL approach will win every time.

And it’s not just SMBs or ISVs that are demanding a more successful approach then what 3GL’s have been able to deliver; if you talk with any enterprise CIO they will get a sour face while telling you how unsuccessful 3GL’s have been within their organization.  One CIO once told me that for every dollar they budgeted, they ended up needing to spend $7 to actually get the thing to work. Reference the Chaos report (http://www1.standishgroup.com/newsroom/chaos_2009.php ) in which only 1 in 3 projects have completed successfully.

Do we really think yesterday’s solution is still going to be tomorrow’s?

The second issue here is one of "vision". In just about any industry, the evolution is for simpler to use, faster and more affordable products (think rotary land-line versus iPhone). Why should software development be any different?  If it were possible to deliver better/faster/cheaper/simpler/easier without sacrificing sophistication, isn't it obvious that is the future of software development?

My point is that while the examples Sinclair cited of how force.com didn’t live up to its billing because it required programmers but yet didn’t deliver full programmatic control are credible examples, tools like WorkXpress are nevertheless pushing the boundaries of 5GL sophistication, and addressing those types of issues.

In other words, even today 5GLs are being chosen over 3GLs by real-world customers, because they are the best tool to solve real-world problems. So if that’s happening today, how much more so is it likely to happen tomorrow?

The utopian vision of a 5GL is clearly better than what we get with 3GLs of today, it really is just a matter of time until that vision becomes a reality.  And if so, what is the point of arguing for 3GL’s when they aren’t even the right tool to solve a particular need?

I wonder what the 1GL and 2GL people said when 3GLs started to emerge? The 3GL folks eventually won that debate, time will tell if the 5GL folks will win this one.

More Stories By Treff LaPlante

Treff LaPlante has been involved with technology for nearly 20 years. At WorkXpress, he passionately drives the vision of making customized enterprise software easy, fast, and affordable.

Prior to joining WorkXpress, Treff was director of operations for eBay's HomesDirect. While there, he created strategic relationships with Fortune 500 companies and national broker networks and began his foray into the development of flexible workflow software technologies. He served on the management team that sold HomesDirect to eBay.

During his time at Vivendi-Universal Interactive, Treff was director of strategy. In addition to M&A activities, Treff broadly applied quantitative management principles to sales, marketing, and product line functions. Treff served as the point person for the management team that sold Cendant Software to Vivendi-Universal. Earlier positions included product management and national sales trainer for Energy Design Systems, an engineering software company. Treff began his professional career as a metals trader for Randall Trading Corp, a commodities firm that specialized in bartering and transporting various metals and coal from the then-dissolving Soviet Union.

Treff received his MBA from Pepperdine University and a BS in chemical engineering from The Pennsylvania State University. http://www.workxpress.com

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