Delano Promises Big Productivity Gains

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Call me an optimist, but it seems that the computer industry has finally abandoned its fruitless quest for a "silver bullet" to solve all application development problems. In the past, major developments like relational databases, computer-assisted software engineering, client-server architectures, and object-based programming were hailed as panaceas by their proponents; it was as if a technology with lesser pretensions wasn't worth considering. Today, significant new technologies - most obviously the Internet - are recognized as important, even if they won't meet all user needs overnight. Maybe the technologists have gotten smarter, or just more cynical. Maybe the industry agenda is now being set by business people with less faith in technology to begin with. Whatever the reason, this new realism is a welcome change from the overinflated rhetoric of the past.


In this relatively calm atmosphere, products that claim huge improvements over standard technologies face a newly skeptical audience. This presents a marketing dilemma: Do they promise seemingly impossible benefits and risk losing their credibility, or do they tone down their claims at the risk of being overlooked altogether?


Buyers face a complementary problem: Do they reject bold claims out of hand, or take the time to figure out the conditions - usually quite limited - under which they might actually be true?


Delano e-Business Interaction Suite (Delano Technology Corp., 905-764-5499; www.delanotech.com) exemplifies these issues. Its developer has chosen the aggressive course, boldly claiming to be 10 to 20 times more productive than alternative technologies. This is probably the right marketing decision - better to be notorious than ignored. But it's a high-risk game, with credibility as the stakes.


Can Delano deliver?


Or, to put first things first, what does Delano deliver? The e-Business Interaction Suite is not an application like a campaign manager or a Web-page builder. Rather, it is a collection of components - a toolkit - used to build such applications. Specifically, it helps to build e-mail and Web-based applications that interact with existing databases, directories, and communications devices. Its productivity claim is based on simplifying connections to these external resources, allowing developers to exploit existing systems rather than building new ones from scratch. It further promises to simplify the creation, deployment and management of the applications its users do create.


This poses a challenge for anyone considering the purchase of Delano. Applications are fairly easy to evaluate - they either do what you need or they don't; at most, you also have to consider the difficulty of adding any missing functions. But with an application builder, there is no existing application to judge. Instead, everything revolves around the technicians' assessment of what the system can create and how hard they will find it to use. But unless users can specify in advance exactly what they need created - which almost never happens - the technicians will be hard pressed to give a meaningful answer. So the evaluation comes down to a generic assessment of the application builder's power, flexibility and ease of use. Those are highly subjective judgements, and only make sense when compared with other alternatives.


Which brings us back to Delano. The company says users can build applications 10 to 20 times faster with its tool than without. It backs up this claim with examples like an e-mail response generator that took two and one-half days to program in Visual Basic, vs. 90 minutes to build in Delano. Sure enough, that's a 15-fold improvement. But a more meaningful comparison might be between Delano and another application builder, such as Forte or PowerBuilder. Those also deliver substantial productivity gains over manual coding.


In addition, a skeptic might ask how much of the original two and one-half days was spent defining requirements. This and testing generally account for well over half the time involved in a development project - meaning that even if an application builder could cut the programming time to zero, productivity would no more than double. This is exactly why a previous generation of highly-touted productivity aids, computer-assisted software engineering (CASE) tools, failed to live up to their initial promises.


In short, Delano is not likely to be as revolutionary as its marketing suggests. Still, the system does offer a strong set of functions for building Internet-related applications. The core is a set of about 30 components to do things like start a process when an e-mail is received, read from or write to a database and generate a personalized Web page. The components are strung together on a flow chart, making it easy to define application logic. Each component is then given properties that specify how it will act and what external systems it will connect with. Once an external system has been identified to Delano, it is available to future Delano applications without additional effort. This feature alone will save developers a substantial amount of time.


On the other hand, specific actions within each component must be coded manually, using tools like SQL queries or Java scripts. This limits the productivity gains derived from Delano and means that technical staff, rather than end-users, will be the ones to build the applications.


Delano also includes administrative and server modules to execute the applications it has built. This simplifies deployment and helps to ensure scalability and reliability. In fact, the system has been engineered to support millions of actions per day, and probably can. The first bottlenecks are more likely to appear in the external systems that Delano uses but were designed for other purposes.


This points to a final constraint on Delano's benefits. The system can indeed deliver significant productivity gains in developing simple applications that draw on existing resources. But major applications will generally require dedicated databases, update processes and delivery systems. Since Delano provides no real assistance in those areas, its impact is ultimately limited.


Delano e-Business Interaction Suite was introduced in May and has been sold to about 30 companies. Prices begin at $250,000 for enterprise-wide deployments and rise with the scope of system use.


David Raab is a consultant specializing in marketing technology needs, definition and evaluation. He is based in Chappaqua, NY. His e-mail address is draab@raab


associates.com.
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