Forte is now fighting its corner in the enterprise tool market, asease tool market penetration. the giants of the software industry converge on what was previously a small niche.
The five-year-old tool vendor admits that it cannot compete with the marketing clout of companies like Microsoft. Yet Forte also concedes that for the first four years of its business, the company never actively marketed its products.
At its annual users' conference in San Francisco last week, Forte outlined plans to increase its market penetration. New releases of the core product, Forte Application Environment, and a mainframe version of the same product (both in the beta testing stage), will be written in 100% Pure Java to give application developers the option to write in Java or in Forte's own language, Tool.
While Martin Sprinzen, Forte's CEO, maintained that Tool is easier to write in and would still be the language of preference for developers proficient in both, it would make the product accessible to a far greater number of programmers, he admitted.
The move to Java was regarded as the most innovative change by users at the conference, but Sprinzen argued that the biggest change in Release 4 of the product is the move to component-based computing. With the new version, developers will be able to take components written in any environment, such as Java, Active X and Tool, and tie them all together in one application.
Another pressing reason to change swiftly is that Forte's books have shown red for three quarters, and analysts do not predict a return to profits until this time next year. Despite being one of the fastest growing companies in Silicon Valley, with revenues increasing from $10 million (#6 million) to $70 million (#42 million) in four years, revenues fail to keep pace with the investments in development essential to keep Forte out of the reach of giants like IBM, Oracle and Microsoft.
Sprinzen told PC Week that Forte was aware that its niche market was being eyed by predators. "Right now our competitors are Seer and Dynasty, but in the longer term I envisage competition coming from companies like IBM, Microsoft and Oracle by developing or by buying into the technology," he said.
Among the three vendors, Sprinzen rated Microsoft as the biggest threat.
IBM has little history in the development of tools and is known not to have progressed far down the development route, he pointed out. While Oracle already has visibility in this market, it is unlikely to get much penetration outside its own database market. Traditionally, no database company has ever succeeded in running a development tools and database business in parallel, said Sprinzen, citing Sybase's purchase of PowerBuilder tool technology.
Although the most dangerous, even Microsoft would not pose a threat in the short term, Sprinzen believes. "Realistically, we're talking three years minimum - but it's not to be taken lightly," he said.
To be a serious contender in the enterprise market, Microsoft would need to provide an integrated package of a robust repository which would work with an advanced version of Visual Basic or Visual J , DCOM and Microsoft messaging technology, Sprinzen claimed.
The interest of the software giants could precipitate the failure of many existing players in the tools market. "We are predicting a huge fall out rate in the enterprise market, in the region of 40-50%," said Larry Perlstein, principle analyst for development tools and middleware at Dataquest.
The aspirations of big players like Oracle, Microsoft and IBM are "bad news for smaller vendors", but less likely to harm Forte's business because the rivals are held back by poor functionality, he added.
Jim Solenberg, associate consultant for global IT architecture at pharmaceuticals firm Eli Lilly, maker of the drug Prozac, is a user of both Forte and Microsoft's Visual Basic. He believes Forte will hold its own against Microsoft.
"The major hurdle to Microsoft's march into the enterprise is its refusal to work on any platform other than NT," he said.
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