The fourth generation is dynamic

The “fourth generation languages” are left there well, apparently. Many customers continue to trust their development environment. Not only to protect their investments – in the software and the formation of the developers – but especially for the usual reason: a higher productivity of the developers. At the end of the day, development in a 4GL is faster than development in a 3GL. The tool has a given intelligence that a 3GL does not have. The developers must write less detailed instructions, to produce less lines of code. That saves time – much of time. The tool “knows” how the program must communicate with the database and can take account of the operating system. The three suppliers whom we contacted provided us an impressive list of RDBMS and operating systems supported by their tool.

The evolution of technology is not either a reason to change tool – the tools are always supplemented by new possibilities. The consequent longevity of these tools is an advantage: that proves that technology and the platform are reliable. Other favours: a 4GL can be learned quickly, because the developers should not be plunged in the technical details. The three suppliers each know examples of customers who had engaged on the Java way and which gave it up because development was not fast enough.


Uniface originated 25 years ago in Amsterdam. At the beginning, the tool was used to build applications for the VT100 terminals, in character mode obviously. Later, client/server applications were concerned, and today with Uniface one creates RIA (Rich Internet Application) applications.

The strong point of Uniface is that it was always platform independent.Unix, VMS, Windows, OS400, Windows mobile: all is possible. When the developers are confronted with a new environment, they should not have to learn a new language. They should not be plunged in a new technology, build the screen in detail, read and write in the database, protect, carry out tasks in parallel, etc. Ton Blankers, Uniface Product Manager at Compuware: “Uniface helps the developer by doing a part of the work”.

The world changed, and Uniface change also. Where the emphasis used to be on office applications, today primarily Web applications are built, with which the customers of the company process their own data regarding their insurance policies or their banking operations. Declarations to various government services also proceed on line today. The tool was thus also provided with new possibilities. Portable applications are also possible. At Compuware, which acquired Uniface, the slogan is: “from mobile to mainframe”

Ton Blankers: “Do you know the Java Pet Store Application? We rebuilt it in Uniface. That way we have been able to prove that less lines of code have to be written with our tool than with Java.”

Uniface has been offering the possibility of model driven programming for a long time. Before starting to program, you build a model which includes/understands information on the database, the tables and the relations between the tables. Later, during the development, you use information of this model. In this manner, the developer has less of work than with a 3GL. Ton Blankers: “Take the project “Oslo”. Microsoft works with a “modeling platform”. According to Bill Gates, it is about the approach of the future. But we have been doing this for a long time already.”

And what’s with the architecture? In the past, the developer built the screen on the basis of the model. It is still possible today, but a new approach appeared which makes it possible to build an application in three layers and which also uses web services.

Ton Blankers estimates that the future of Uniface is announced well: “Uniface is a financially very healthy part of the Compuware company. Almost all our customers renew their contracts years after years.”


Progress 4GL
One also considers the future with confidence at Progress. In 1981, the Progress company launched a RDBMS and the corresponding 4GL. The first development tools functioned in a “host-based” environment, then passed on to the universe of the Client/Server before being directed towards the SOA (Service Oriented Architecture). The name changed into “OpenEdge Advanced Business Language”. According to the mission statement of Progress, the development tools must be usable with “any platform, any data base management system, any architecture”.

An application built with Progress 4GL is scalable: if you develop it for one or 100.000 users, that does not change much. An application built with Progress 4GL will be less complicated if you transfer it to another platform.

When new technologies appeared, the tool was adapted. An application written in Progress 4GL can call web services as well as Java components and. Net components. Procedures written in Progress 4GL can be called like web services, but also directly.

Peter Van der Elst, Professional Services Manager Southern Europe: “Our development tool has existed for more than 20 years. It is a robust tool, stable, which is moreover easy to learn and which makes it possible for the developer to reach a high productivity. As you write less lines with Progress 4GL, maintenance is also faster, which reduces the costs once more.”


PowerBuilder is youngest of the group. In 1991, Powersoft created this environment of virtual development for client/server applications with Windows, connectivity with many databases (directly or via ODBC), and especially the “data window”. The intelligent object “data window” saves a lot of work for the developer when querying data or writing to the database.

With time, the company noticed that a great number of its customers wanted to pass to the .NET universe. Sybase, which acquired Powersoft, decided to adapt PowerBuilder to it. In addition, for the minority that chooses to work with Java, some bridges were also built.

Sybase drew out a roadmap during the last couple of years that brings the tool closer to. Net, and added many functions to PowerBuilder: Web Services in PB9, DataWindow .NET in PB10, .NET Deployment in PB11. .NET Resource Consumption is planned for PB12.

Dave Fish, “PowerBuilder Evangelist” at Sybase, estimates that there are still many advantages for developers who use PowerBuilder: “PowerBuilder simplifies the life of the developer because it disregards most of the complexity which goes hand in hand with the development of Windows applications. DataWindow technology saves the developer the technical complexity of the access to the data.”

Peter Lambert, PowerBuilder sales at Sybase Ltd: “In May 2007, Sybase launched PowerBuilder 11, and our launching event was largely visited. By disappointed Java developers, but also by existing PowerBuilder developers who wanted to know how to migrate existing applications towards .NET with PowerBuilder without rewriting all the code. This is very important because that means that the long experience of many PowerBuilder developers can be used continuously, which contributes to large economies on the future investments for a company.”

“PowerBuilder is still used by thousands of developers and those who did not follow its evolution for a while will hardly recognize the tool”, Peter Lambert continues. “PowerBuilder has embraced the .NET platform and therefore carries its 4GL RAD experience and the DataWindow to the .NET. framework”

What will the future bring to these tools? We asked Mark Driver, Research Vice President of the “Application Development Tools and Methods” division of the Gartner research buro. “PowerBuilder is an excellent tool, but the best technology does not always win”, explains Mark Driver. “Many companies replaced their PowerBuilder applications by applications in another language. The companies that still use PowerBuilder use it either because they strongly depend on the code base or because their developers still are very attached to this platform. I do not envisage great increase in the number of PowerBuilder users. What Sybase does now is making sure that the customers who still exist do not have a reason to migrate to another development language; the accent on .NET is a good approach. In .Net world, many goods tools exist. PowerBuilder, Delphi, Progress 4GL, Oracle Forms, etc struggle because of this. In the old days PowerBuilder distinguished itself significantly from competition; it is definitely less the case today.”

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