With its release of PowerBuilder 5.0, Powersoft may have delivered on the promise that visual development tools have long dangled in front of developers. Cross-platform support is easy and transparent, and the speed of generated applications is unparalleled.
New features include enhanced Ole 2.0 support, as well as several new control types, plus a hierarchical list and RTF edit control. This is a most impressive application, combining the best of traditional C-based application development with all the benefits of a modern visual application builder.
PowerBuilder 5.0 also includes sophisticated team development tools. Individual modules of an application can be checked out and worked on by different programmers, and PowerBuilder tracks revisions. Also, each module can be password-protected.
I was especially pleased with the built-in class libraries, which include some 1,500 classes, consisting of everything from data validation to phone directories. Never will I find myself writing those little pieces of code over and over and over again - and again.
The heart of PowerBuilder is the DataWindow control. It offers lots of versatility and can act as forms, graphs, or documents. Using DataWindows, I could create a variety of query views, including standard table views, graphs, cross-tabs, and multiline editing areas.
Creating an application in PowerBuilder is incredibly easy. As with modern integrated development environments for other languages, you get a skeleton application complete with basic menus, the About dialogue, and the master frame. Then it's simply a matter of creating additional windows and menus and coding small scripts to glue the application together.
I was able to easily create an elegant front end for a test database, complete with queries, updates, and data validation, in just a few hours. I was particularly impressed with the speed with which my application executed. PowerBuilder 5.0 no longer uses P-code, a cross between interpreted and compiled code. Instead, it uses compiler technology from Watcom International to produce an amazingly fast executable. This is the first time I've seen a front end created with a visual development tool that runs as quickly as a native C application, and I'm really impressed.
Using the Project Painter, I compiled my application to a stand-alone executable. The compile time was a bit long, but once the application was built, it was amazingly fast.
To help distribute the finished product, Powersoft has also included the Install Builder, which makes the creation of sophisticated setup programs easy. Like PowerBuilder itself, the Install Builder can create both 16- and 32-bit executables, so you can develop using a real operating system like Windows NT and then distribute the finished application to Windows 3.1 clients. Oddly, PowerBuilder's setup doesn't install Install Builder by default.
One of my few complaints with PowerBuilder 5.0 is that the main application hierarchy doesn't update automatically. I had to close the application window, reopen it, and re-expand the tree. And, inconveniently, double-clicking on an item doesn't open it for editing.
Another interface quirk is the bevy of features that are only available via the toolbars. Toolbars are helpful, but I'd prefer to have commands available from the menus.
The Books On-Line was helpful, but its stability was questionable. At one point in the tutorial, the entire application just disappeared.
PowerBuilder 5.0 ships with native drivers for an impressive array of databases, including Oracle, Informix, DB2, and Microsoft SQL Server. Further connectivity is provided via ODBC, which should make it possible to build front ends for pretty much any SQL server.
The Bottom Line: Very Good
PowerBuilder, Version 5.0
Minor interface glitches aside, PowerBuilder 5.0 is shaping up to be a very impressive release indeed. Despite past weaknesses, visual application builders are finally living up to the promise of speedy development, portability, and increased reusability.
Pros: Extremely fast executables; cross-platform support.
Cons: Quirky user interface.
Price: PowerBuilder Desktop $450, PowerBuilder Professional $1,795 and PowerBuilder Enterprise $4,995.
Platforms: Windows 3.x and Windows 95; Windows NT shipping by the end of May. Unix, Macintosh and other versions in a few months.
Tel: (02) 9929 4491ÊFax: (02) 9929 4493