In the six years since Forte Software was set up, the company has released a widely respected enterprise development tool, seen off competition from rival suppliers and achieved a successful public flotation. This week in San Francisco, 1,000 developers gathered for the company?s third annual user group to find the supplier preparing to take on competition from Oracle and Microsoft.
Forte is the brainchild of former Ingres European marketing director Marty Sprinzen and Ingres technical guru Paul Butterworth. Together with Sybase?s Rich Schaffer, they began working on the Forte development environment back in 1991, with a mission statement to create a product that would "reduce the complexities of building, deploying and integrating distributed operational systems".
Three years later the company shipped release 1.0 of the Forte application environment. Later this year, release 3.0 will become available to the supplier?s installed base, which includes many household names, such as Bass Taverns, The Gap and Mazda, while thought is already being given to version 4.0.
In the six years since its inception, Forte?s market acceptance has been assisted by the emergence of a number of factors that have supported its vision, notably the Internet and the knock-on interest it has inspired in object oriented development.
"The Internet makes distributed computing and object oriented development a given," said Forte chief executive Sprinzen. "Only a couple of years ago, Forte really was a missionary sell. We had to go in and push the distributed object approach. That?s not the case any more."
But the company can still have its setbacks. Despite a well articulated product strategy and good prospects for growth, the company's share price fell through the floor when it reported its year end results - profit of $7.2 million on revenues of $63 million, both well up on the previous year's loss of $2.0 million on revenues of $30 million.
Investors were puzzled, but Sprinzen is philosophical about the rough treatment the stock has endured in recent weeks, insisting that Forte takes a long term rather than a short term view.
The share price dive appears to have been fuelled by a mutual fund investor that dumped its stock and sparked a scare on Wall Street. This week, the price had risen to the mid-teens, up from the single figures immediately after the results, but well down from its $80 high after the initial flotation last year.
That high was too high, said Spinzen, an unrealistic price. "I?d like to think that Wall Street will be kinder to Forte next time around," said Phil Wilkerson, who heads up ISD technical architecture at The Gap. "This happens to all new public companies - they start off with a ridiculously high price, then fall and stabilise. I would like to see Forte settling down to consistent growth from now on. That will encourage more customers. This sort of thing does worry some people."
Having confidence in the long term stability of Forte is particularly important to potential customers as adopting the company?s product line is a pretty hefty financial commitment. "A Case tool price for Case tool functionality," was the pat response that used to be given when Forte executives were asked how they could compete in what was rapidly becoming a commodity tools market.
If anything, this issue has gained additional importance with companies such as Informix admitting that the margins on selling tools have all but disappeared as the likes of Microsoft give their products away. Wilkerson at The Gap is discreet on the question of the cost of adopting Forte. ?You have to ask what the cost would be if you don?t adopt Forte," he said. "Looked at like that, it?s been cheap."
So what do you get for your money? The company?s flagship product is the Forte Application Environment, an integrated set of object oriented tools that break apart or partition applications into desktop components and a set of server components, each of which can be reused by multiple applications.
It is this partitioning technology that gave Forte its competitive edge when it first launched. Since that time, a number of other suppliers - notably Dynasty and Seer Technologies - have introduced similar functionality, but have enjoyed comparatively little success.
Sprinzen believes that Forte still has a leading position in the enterprise development market, but acknowledges that the company is set to attract stiff competition from both Oracle and Microsoft in the next few years. "At the moment, we?re fighting 35 millimetre slide projectors, but they are going to move into our space," he said.
He is confident that Forte can hold off its larger rivals, pointing to the singular lack of success that most database companies have enjoyed with their tools strategies. "The barrier to entry in this market are very high," he explained. "We?ve got a four-year headstart on any new competition. Database companies have not been successful in developing a Forte-type product," he said. "Informix tried with New Era, Sybase had to go out and buy Powerbuilder and Ingres had Windows 4GL, but Computer Associates [now Ingres?s owner] hasn?t enhanced it."
Microsoft?s offering will take the form of a series of products, all of which will be focused on promoting NT, he thinks. This will work, but will lack the tight integration of the Forte offering. "If you are a Microsoft-only environment, if you?re prepared to work with lots of products and if you?re prepared to wait, then this might be for you," he added.
As for Oracle?s long-awaited Sedona product, Sprinzen claims to be unclear about the company?s intentions. "Sedona has changed direction," he said. "At first it seemed as though it was going to be a Forte-type product, but now it seems to be more of an object repository. When a company changes a product?s direction midway, it?s a difficult thing to manage."
Dennis Moore, a former colleague of Sprinzen from Ingres and now vice president of the Oracle tools group, is not ready to take such comments lying down. "Sedona is not a Forte competitor - we?ve already got one of those with Developer 2000," he said.
Moore does not buy into the idea that Forte is the success story it is typically assumed to be. Recalling the recent share price fall, he predicted that the company might run into further trouble next quarter. He also dismissed Forte?s plans to add Java support to its software in a later release, arguing that it will be too late.
Version 3.0 of the Forte environment will support Java clients and generate Forte applets to run in a browser. Version 4.0 will then contain more comprehensive Java support, improved configuration management, and integration with third party security and authentication services.
Wilkerson at The Gap admitted that his company had pressed Forte on the question of Java support, but added that it was possible for companies to come up with a DIY interim solution. He added that he was happy with the direction and strategy outlined by Forte. "Forte has given us an enabling capability we did not have before," he concluded.
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