LAS VEGAS -- The vendors that circulate at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas usually boost the technology of the day or, more often, the technology of tomorrow. If it is not shipping and you cannot test it, it is easier to promote and sell -- and thus, perhaps, safer.
Many of the wireless doodads and Internet appliances at this year's conference neatly fall into that categorization.
Few at the show stop to remember that, yes, the TabletPC that Bill Gates touted at the start of the show is pretty similar to the Pen PCs that dotted the show about ten years ago. Those machines, on the main, sank without a trace, leaving little but marketing material in their wake.
But Comdex has so many corridors that you may occasionally chance upon people discussing technology that is actually available. At this year's conference, for example, at least one forum was dedicated to standard software components, a technology long-touted in the software trade booths but that IT shops are only now beginning to use.
In Las Vegas, at a session sponsored by ComponentSource that considered component software do's and don'ts, IT managers noted that, despite some implementation issues, Java component technology from Sun Microsystems and Component Object Model (COM) technology sponsored by Microsoft -- newly recast as the .Net initiative -- are beginning to take root. For big, multiplatform computer departments, the Java route has real appeal.
Still, maturity is an issue. Kevin Starrett, lead developer-analyst for Federal Express's Latin America and Caribbean IT division, said his group is today doing all its production work in Java. Starrett and his troops have gone further of late, focusing on Enterprise Java Beans (EJB), the component standard that has arisen to help ease Java development problems. He noted, "We [favor] a component architecture. We have taken some small strides in looking at EJB, but we want it to get a little more mature."
Like most IT shops, FedEx faces a major shortage of software programmers. Starrett hopes that a component architecture such as EJB will enable the company to break up its development process into pieces so that developers with advanced skills can create software in the manner of reusable components. Those components can subsequently serve the purposes of all the company's frontline developers.
In addition, Starrett likes the way that Java provides a wrapper around system services such as security. "When we get to EJB we won't have to think about threading or worry about concerns of running on a particular application server," he explained. "However, it is always in the back of your mind because you are curious, and want to make sure it will not blow up in your face."
Battle lines still mark software component world
As is often the case in the world of technology, there are perceived fissures in the the picture. There are battles between component camps. The component schemes of the Microsoft and Sun camps are pitted against each other in a blast of marketing flak. For his part, Starrett does not want to see either side completely win the so-called component war.
"I like to see competition," Starrett explained. "I don't like to see any one company controlling the whole development environment. If there is a war, it is a war that we as developers will benefit from because we will see innovation. We have done a lot of Java stuff. But if there is something Java cannot do and Microsoft is an option, then we will go for it."
Though some training has been involved in moving from plain Java to more sophisticated EJB, Starrett noted that as long as the programmers know the basics of Java and object-oriented analysis methods that are an essential part of modern computer science, a lot of additional training is not required.
One of the problems FedEx faces is that some groups in South America want to develop on the Linux platform, while others want to work on Windows. "One of the things we like about Java is that we can plop things into the environments they have," Starrett said.
At GE, multiple platforms tilt scale toward EJB
Fortune 50 mainstay General Electric once did much of its development around Microsoft's Component Object Model (COM). However, Tim Oliver, systems analyst- developer at GE's Corporate Information Services Group, said much of the focus is now on EJB. He explained that when Microsoft rolled out its .Net initiative this year, GE reevaluated its strategy and realized that transitioning to EJB made a lot more sense because it supports the variety of systems the company deploys.
As GE acquires additional companies -- the recent multibillion-dollar purchase of Honeywell is an apt example -- Java may make it easier to integrate the heterogeneous systems into a single IT infrastructure. "We don't have the luxury of taking years to integrate businesses anymore," Oliver said.
His group has not had to worry about motivating developers to learn the new technology, Oliver said, because "all of the developers are clamoring to learn Java and Java skills on their own. We have not done any formal training."
Most of these programmers work in Visual Basic, while a few use PL1 and C++, he said. Both the C++ language and the Visual Basic language are traditional mainstays of Window-oriented Microsoft developers.
(Includes reporting by Jack Vaughan, ITworld.com.)
- Other news from Comdex/Fall 2000 --ITworld.com