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PowerBuilder: Article

PowerBuilder History - How Did It Evolve?

A Canadian Perspective with an Aussi Twist

I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity. This story is solely from my own personal perspective and I'm sure that I may have a somewhat distorted view of time and space (which keeps getting worse at my age). But anyway, here is a perspective of how life (as a DataWindow) began.

Episode I - The Phantom Product
In a galaxy, far, far away... before Sybase... PowerBuilder was developed as a prototype by Cullinet Database Systems of Boston. Cullinet was the developer of the IDMS DBMS and ADS-Online (Application Development System). IDMS was originally developed by BF Goodrich, the tire company, in London, Ontario, Canada, and sold to Cullinane (that later changed their name to Cullinet) located in Boston, Massachusetts. They had an early PC product called "Golden Gate," which proved that you could do GUI client/server application development with mainframe DBMSs. Originally DOS based, Golden Gate was then converted to run under MS Windows. Cullinet also realized that PC-based DBMSs and development tools were on the immediate horizon (1984). Cullinet had an enormous success with ADS-Online (327x-based RAD development tool) and wanted to see if a similar GUI-based tool could be developed. The main features of ADSO included RAD; real-time design, programming, compiling, and debugging; and interactive prototyping. It also used a centralized Data Dictionary, interfaced with various CASE tools, and could deploy to production from development.

In 1984, when I was the technical support manager for Cullinet Canada, Cullinet started their Personal Computer ADSO prototype, which would later become PowerBuilder. The project leader was Dave Litwack, who was in charge of the ADSO product and IDMS-DC (data communications - teleprocessing system and CICS equivalent product). Dave had a great understanding of RAD development tools and telecommunications because of his Cullinet experience. The new product was to have the same key functionality as ADSO (interesting that ORCA was basically working in 1985 in the PowerBuilder prototype because ADSO/IDMS had it), but also added a real key feature: "a smart data aware object." At that time Cullinet was experimenting with a feature called LRF (Logical Record Facility) and DB stored procedures. This object would encapsulate data handling away from the application, but would be a client piece, so there was no dependency on any DBMS.

For the first part of the prototype, Dave chose a real keen "C" programmer named Kim Sheffield. John Griffin - a friend of mine from Ottawa, Ontario - was also recruited by Dave. John was an excellent mainframe assembler programmer and wanted to cross over to C. Dave had him build the "Menu" painter. In later years, John married Julie, another Cullinet developer, and she would help rewrite the Menu Painter and add Remote Debugging to PB for EAServer.

Dave also wanted to have the new tool that was fully OO - object oriented. The C++ language was coming on strong and SmallTalk was the "talk of the town" for serious OO programmers. Dave wanted PowerBuilder to adopt the SmallTalk OO principles but make it easy for the business developer to use.

In 1985 a crude prototype was shown to the Cullinet inside circle. The product's potential was immediately expounded by senior management (one of those being Bobby Orr - the hockey legend [another good story I can tell you sometime] - who was on the board of directors of Cullinet at that time). Unfortunately, Cullinet had serious challenges for various takeover bids by different companies, including CA (Computer Associates). CA at that time had already purchased DataCom and wanted Cullinet for IDMS. CA's mentality then was to buy out the competition, sell off any non-key products, and milk the maintenance contracts of key clients. With little or no development personnel (fired), there was no overhead and all profit. In 1986, CA was successful on a hostile takeover of Cullinet. The new PC product was considered non-essential and all developers were let go (that is why today I will never buy a CA product)!

Episode II - The Little Droid that Could
In 1986, PowerSoft was developing business applications for the VAX platform. PowerSoft also realized the PC development arena was about to explode and started looking around for a leading-edge GUI development tool. They hired an independent consultant, Dave Litwack, to help advise them on exactly what they should be looking for. At that time, Gupta's SQLWindows was the only serious product. Other than that you had to get down and code "C," which was not what PowerSoft wanted business programmers to use. Dave mentioned his involvement with Cullinet and their last prototyping effort. PowerSoft approached CA and asked if they could acquire the prototype code (originally done in C). CA said that they had looked at the PB prototype and that they concluded that there was no future in it (duh) - so give us a few bucks for the code and good luck with it!

In 1988, three years after the original concept prototype, PowerSoft had the code and Dave (now hired by PowerSoft) was able to hire the other programmers who worked on the original prototype (what a fluke) as they were looking for some challenging work at that time as well. PowerSoft then christened the new product "PowerBuilder" and began to enhance the code. Since they were a business solutions developer, they used PowerBuilder internally to recode and replace their VAX products. Testing was "hands-on" and very intensive under real-world developer scenarios. To get funding for this intense effort, PowerSoft partnered with HP. HP gave them a blank check after seeing a demonstration (they are also responsible for the Tilde "O" format [~Onn] for "octal" as HP was an 8-bit machine in those days). PowerBuilder became an internal standard at HP.

At Microsoft's Redmond office, the people in charge of internal systems were faced with the same problems PowerSoft was trying to resolve - they needed a tool for business developers. They contacted their friends at HP and were told that PowerBuilder was the only up-and-coming tool they should look at. In early 1989, Microsoft purchased licenses for PB and was the second worldwide user. The "Royal Australian Air Force" was the first official user - makes me proud as I'm an Australian from Cooma, NSW.

When I was four years old my dad took me to the University of Sydney where he was using the SILLIAC I (Sydney version of the Illinois Automatic Computer) - the first commercial computer ever built ( to do the stress and strain calculations on the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric power dams (largest hydro generation in the world even today: ), which is where I met the first "debugger" in the world ... but that's another story. The Snowy Hydro is still an active PowerBuilder site even today. Even Microsoft used PowerBuilder for their Inventory Management System, MS University Scheduling System, etc., and was "blown" away with its data prowess - especially this new object called the "DataWindow" (thanks Kim).

Episode III - The "Force"
In 1989 I was doing a project for the Canadian government on behalf of Revenue Canada and Treasury Board. My task was to evaluate emerging RDBMS technology and propose the top three to be recommended to all government departments. I completed that in the late summer of 1989. One of the contenders was Microsoft's SQLServer (which was a port of the release 4.x version of Sybase's SQLServer to the OS/2 platform). To verify the final benchmark results, I had a representative from each DBMS vendor drop in and tweak their environments and concur with my approach and results.

More Stories By Chris Pollach

Chris Pollach is a Senior Consultant with over 30 years experience in Systems and Software Analysis, Development, Maintenance and Technical Support, mainly in the areas of GUI Design, MS-Windows Programming, Java / .NET Programming, Wireless, Application / Web Server Design & Programming, Object Oriented Development Tools and Methodologies, Data Base, Data Communications and Network application development. He has participated in numerous technical, planning and management roles, as well as consulted and educated in these fields for a diverse clientele. He is also the owner of “Software Tool & Die Inc.” a company dedicated to provide custom software and education solutions on Object Oriented business systems.

As an educator, Chris is certified to teach PowerBuilder (first in Canada), MS-SQLServer, Sybase’s Enterprise Application Studio and EAServer integrated application/web development environment. He is former Certified SilverStream developer (CSSD) and current Certified PowerBuilder Developer – Associate / Professional (CPD-P) as well as a Certified Sybase Tools Instructor (CSI).

Chris has written numerous articles in various popular personal computer magazines, newsletters and is the author of the PowerGuide and PowerExpert products as well as the STD Foundation Classes. Currently, Chris has developed a Foundation Class library for Sybase's PocketBuilder, SAP's PowerBulder and EAServer products and now Appeon Web & mobile products that integrates JSP or ASP web development, Section 508 / CLF web standards and mobile applications. A new Web Service framework has also been released for IIs to support PowerBuilder based web service NVUO's!

Chris recently became a 2nd Degree Black in the TaeKwonDo martial art and has developed a Martial Art multimedia study guide using the Component-One “Doc2Help” and Sybase PowerBuilder products. Since the fall of 2004 he became a TaeKwonDo instructor for the City of Ottawa’s Goulbourn program. He has also been certified with the World TaeKwonDo Federation (February 2005 - 1st Dan and October 2008 - 2nd Dan).

Chris was awarded the Sybase “Innovation and Achievement” award for 2005 as voted for by the International Sybase User Group (ISUG). This award was presented for innovations to the PocketBuilder mobile development product, contributions to the PowerBuilder News groups and support of the Ottawa Sybase User Group.

To round his management and leadership skills, Chris is the former president of the Kiwanis Club of Goulbourn and still volunteers his time with the service clubs in his area. He is also the coordinator of the Ottawa Sybase User group and a certified NAUI scuba instructor. For the last three years, Chris has been voted onto the ISUG Board of Directors and holds the position of "Director - North American User Groups".

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Most Recent Comments
Ahmad Ghosheh 07/11/08 01:29:20 PM EDT

I was a Dbase and Clipper programmer in the 80s. When Windows came online and GUI application became the new trend PB filled this void with a fantastic product. I was with PB since 1.0 and still here at 11. I never used a development environment I liked better than PB and don't expect to find one either. The very best for sure. No to mention you can still make very very good money doing PB code.

Harvey Kravis 06/24/08 03:15:27 PM EDT

Thanks so much for writing this article. It brought back wonderful memories for me, and I have a few corrections to make. I think it is worth mentioning that PowerSoft was originally called Computer Solutions. The name change took place after the venture capitalists decided that PowerSoft needed to get out of the applications business. I was one of the 14 people on the development team that was sold to Dun & Bradstreet Software. I'm not sure where those references to Vax came from. We never did anything with Vax. We were an HP3000 shop, hence the relationship with HP. I was actually in some of the original design meetings with Litwack, Dewan, and Sheffield, but when they realized I knew nothing about Windows I got kicked out. Oh what could have been. Anyway, I'm still using PB today, and have used every version from 1 - 11, and even used the pre-beta version of 1.0.

Gopi Nathan 06/04/08 05:42:06 AM EDT

Powerbuilder history has some date errors. Cullinet was taken over by CA in 1989 and not in 1986 as the article says. Also doubtful whether the ADS/PC prototype was made in 1985...must be much later.

Otherwise the article was a fantastic one!

Judah Holstein 04/16/08 07:18:46 AM EDT

Hi Chris!
Thanks for that great story! I started with PB in 1992 and we still use it in many of our products today. Every time I try another technology for GUI development, I always regret it, and like Michael Corleone I get sucked back in! :)

I didn't know that MS was using Watcom for it's products back in the day. I always remember Watcom's "claim to fame" as being the compiler used for the DOOM game... I guess PowerSoft people had a leg up on MS people!

Perhaps with the recent erosion of the Microsoft market they will gain another leg up by providing Linux and Mac OS/X support!

Kevin Kelly 08/11/07 02:07:06 PM EDT

Hey Chris, great story! I began using PB v1.0 in October 1992. I believe it was one of the first C/S projects in the Washington DC metro area. Microsoft was also interested in our success because we were using MS SQL Server and Lan Manager. So, they gave me lots of pre-release goodies (Workgroup for Windows for one) to ensure our success.
Funny story how I stumbled on to PowerBuilder. I was working at Cable & Wireless Communications at the time and very unhappy because the two micro-systems I was maintaining were rolled up under the mainframe management team. It wasn’t that fun so I turned in my resignation. But before I new it, I was being summoned by a new IT Director under the marketing division. Well, he convinced me to stay and head up a client server project, converting a mainframe sales commission application to the PC. It was my choice of tools as long as I could back up by decision with solid research. PC Week had done a very positive article on PowerBuilder, so I called in Microsoft, and Powersoft to see how well their tools worked together, and that’s when I was told about the PB apps running in Redmond. I also spoke to American Airlines, Compaq, and Standard Commercial. All of them gave two-thumbs-up! But you know what sold me on PB v1.0 over MS Visual Basic, and Object Vision (C based) at the time, the debugger. PB’s debugger was great. Having a MS C background, the debugger was very impressive and it sold me.
In April 1993 I was invited to a private executive breakfast, of about 18, where Dave was going to talk about Powersoft’s newest version, soon to be released PB v3.0, and the future. He sat at my table. He hadn't been home, for a while because he was showing off v3.0. The PB Conference had just finished and Dave was pumped. It was a very exciting time. One month later I went out on my own as an independent consultant. I received my PB Certification to teach and Powersoft had me booked out 4 months in advance. I became very successful and continued teaching/consulting up until v7.0 spring 2000. In 1997, most of the herd was heading to SilverStream land, so I followed.
I guess my most rewarding experience was working in Houston between 1993-1995 where I met a lot of key players. During that time Alex Whitney was given the green light to develop the PFC. It was a great time, and I felt very fortunate to know some of the people that I feel shaped the industry.
I really miss the using PB and I'd love to get back on a project using it. It was by far the highlight of my IT career.
Best of Luck!

SYS-CON India News Desk 01/08/06 04:50:27 PM EST

I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity.

SYS-CON Italy News Desk 12/26/05 03:16:06 PM EST

I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity.

SYS-CON Australia News Desk 12/26/05 02:45:11 PM EST

I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity.

SYS-CON Germany News Desk 10/17/05 02:48:25 PM EDT

PowerBuilder History - A Canadian Perspective With An Aussi Twist. I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity.

PBDJ News Desk 10/17/05 02:24:45 PM EDT

PowerBuilder History - A Canadian Perspective With An Aussi Twist. I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity.

PBDJ News Desk 10/17/05 01:49:33 PM EDT

PowerBuilder History - A Canadian Perspective With An Aussi Twist. I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity.

Mike Collins 10/17/05 01:43:55 PM EDT

PB was a great experience in my career. I was introduced to PB after a large Knowledgeware project where we faced porting the project to MicroFocus Cobol or PB3. At the time PB was the on-ramp to Windows programming for thousands of Cobol\CICS mainframe developers. Everything was about Client-Server in the early 90's.

I'll always remember the 1996 Orlando Conference. I think 5000 attended, sessions were packed to the back wall. PFC was the talk of the community.

Steve Benfield 09/21/05 01:09:35 PM EDT

Chris--thank you so much for this walk down memory lane. PowerBuilder was very good to me and I loved using it and being involved in it. I was the first editor-in-chief of the PBDJ and it was a wild and crazy time back in the early 90s at PB shot out like a rocket. Because of PB I was able to travel the world teaching and consulting and I have fond memories of the whole PB community. The DataWindow still rocks.

After PB I moved to SilverStream and eventually worked for Dave Litwack as CTO. He is truly an app dev visionary and has a real feel for getting "real apps" built vs. theory.

As for Kim, he's doing what he loves and he's having a great time.

Thanks again for sharing!

--Steve Benfield

Yakov Fain 09/20/05 02:15:12 PM EDT

Can you please provide a reference to the research that "stated that 60% of all U.S. companies that started a Java project last year canned it"


Bernard Dy 09/12/05 01:47:25 PM EDT

Interesting...I'd like to hear more about your PB9 vs. VB.NET story! And also maybe from Kim Sheffield about why he moved to .NET.

PBDJ News Desk 09/12/05 09:53:48 AM EDT

PowerBuilder History. I have been asked many times by various clients, students, and the IT curious about PowerBuilder: When did Sybase develop the product and how did it evolve? I keep telling this story and answering e-mails on the subject. I am now to the point where I have decided that I should have PBDJ formally publish this story for posterity.

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