Goodbye, My Friend


I guess the other shoe has finally dropped at Borland. Chief Scientist Danny Thorpe has left. He jumped ship for Google in December. I received the news with mixed emotions. On the one hand, it’s a terrible, perhaps fatal, loss for Borland. On the other, Danny’s my friend, and I’m happy about the new opportunities Google might have for him – opportunities that realistically he would never have had at Borland.


As a long-time friend of the company, it’s been hard for me to watch Borland slowly die over the years. For a company that was once one of the brightest stars in Silicon Valley, Borland has stolen defeat from the jaws of victory more times than I can count. One corporate misstep after another has virtually doomed them – so much so that I wonder just how much longer they can go on. People have predicted Borland’s demise before, but I think this time their number may finally be up.


“What missteps?” you ask. I’m glad you asked that question. Personally, I think the first sign of something amiss at Borland was back in the 80s when the company parted ways with Niels Jensen. Niels helped found Borland in Copenhagen in 1979. In 1987, he and most of the language development team left in what he called a “disagreement over compiler quality.” I never knew the whole story, but the promise of Niels’ work in subsequent ventures always made me wonder about the wisdom of letting him get away. After leaving Borland, Niels founded JPI, makers of the TopSpeed line of compilers and language products. Some of you old-timers no doubt remember them. The coolest aspect of the TopSpeed stuff was that it featured a unified IDE for all of JPI’s languages: C/C++, Pascal, Modula-2, etc. The object files produced by these compilers were interchangeable. Each compiled to an intermediate format that was cross-compiler and cross-language compatible. You could freely mix and match languages within a project to your heart’s content – playing to the strengths of each as you saw fit. Can you say “IL,” anyone? And this was in the 80s, more than a decade before VS.NET shipped.


The next Borland misstep was the giant pile of poo it stepped in when it bought Ashton-Tate in a leveraged buyout in 1991. Some of you no doubt remember Ashton-Tate and its dBase line of PC database products. dBase had taken the world by storm in the early 80s as the first widely-used DBMS product for the PC. Numerous clones, compilers, and alternatives emerged thereafter (e.g., Clipper, Quicksilver, FoxPro, Force, Paradox, etc.), and these eventually eclipsed dBase as the tool of choice for PC database work. By 1991, Ashton-Tate had squandered what lead it had had in the PC DBMS market by spending its time suing people instead of innovating. It was a dead company, and Borland already had Paradox, which it got when it bought Ansa in 1988, so many of us wondered what exactly they were doing when they mortgaged the company’s future to acquire Ashton-Tate. I personally couldn’t see what they gained for all the debt and ill-will they acquired from the merger.


There’s an apocryphal story about Borland persuading Ashton-Tate to agree to the buyout by showing them a half-done version of “Turbo dBase” – a dBase compiler they never shipped. If true, that’s pretty hilarious given that dBase compilers were old news by the time 1991 rolled around. Besides, Ashton-Tate already had its own. It was codenamed “Jupiter,” and they showed it to me in 1989. I had written a programming environment that provided an integrated editor and compiler/linker execution environment for virtually any PC language product. Most compilers at the time were command-line tools, and my software complemented them with a full-featured development environment along the lines of the Borland Turbo environments. It already supported all of the other dBase compilers, and they wanted me to add support to it for Jupiter. I was nonplussed with the demo they gave me – the compiler barely worked and produced code that ran no faster than interpretive code running under dBase itself. Worse yet, the beta they gave me to try out had a propensity for ruining hard drives, so the diskettes it came on carried a warning advising testers to “install the software on test machines only – this software may corrupt your hard drive.” Like most people, I didn’t have a machine on which I could really afford to lose the hard drive, so I never installed it. Thanks, but no thanks, Ashton-Tate. I think I understand why you wanted to sell the company; I just can’t understand why Borland wanted to buy it, Philippe Kahn’s ego notwithstanding.


Borland never really recouped the huge investment it made in Ashton-Tate. They bet the farm on the merger and lost. The purchase sucked the life’s blood out of the company, and they struggled even to turn a profit thereafter. Today, they sell none of the products they acquired in the merger.


The next big misstep was letting Anders Hejlsberg get away from them. Anders, the creator of both Turbo Pascal and Delphi, was Chief Engineer at Borland for many years and widely regarded as one of the top developers in the world. For whatever reason, he left Borland for Microsoft in 1996, and Borland has never been the same since. If you ask me, if they wanted to mortgage the future of the company on something, keeping Anders should have been it. They should have done whatever it took to keep him (perhaps nothing would have – I dunno), but they didn’t, and the rest is history. It was a great gain for Microsoft (and I think for the industry), but it was a terrible loss for Borland – one from which I don’t think they ever really recovered.


Moving on down the list, I suppose I could detail what a misstep the “Inprise” gaffe was, but, as Garry Wills said of John Wayne’s movie portrayal of Genghis Kahn, that whole fiasco is best passed over in silence. Even now, I look back at that time in Borland’s history and just shake my head.


Over the years, Anders’ departure was followed by the exodus of several other topflight engineers including Chuck Jazdzewski (Anders’ successor as chief architect of Delphi) and, now, Danny.


Danny and I first got acquainted in the early 90s when I called up a VP I knew at Borland and told him about a product I really thought they should consider building. I told him I liked the visual development paradigm presented by “this new Visual Basic product,” but hated the BASIC language and, given that I was a long time fan of their Pascal products, wondered whether they’d considered creating a “Visual Pascal” of some type. Turns out they had, and they were already well along with it. The next day, a fellow named Danny Thorpe called to tell me about this new super-secret visual development environment they were building for Pascal. Originally to be called “Borland Pascal 8,” and codenamed both “Mango” and “Wasabi” at various times, this was exactly what I was looking for. Danny sent me some diskettes with handwritten labels (which I still have), and I began alpha testing what eventually became the first version of Delphi. This was 1993.


I did wonder about the wisdom, from a business standpoint, of targeting Pascal with the product. Even then, Pascal seemed to be a dying language. The one-time jewel of PC development products was quickly falling behind both VB and C/C++ products (and, eventually Java) in terms of sales and market share. I loved Pascal then (and still do), but questioned the wisdom of betting the company on a language an ever-increasing segment of the business community refused to use. It seemed to me that this was Borland’s final “Hail Mary” pass, and, if it were me, I’d have probably thrown for C++, especially given that Borland already had its own C/C++ language product. I asked Danny about this, and he said they went with Pascal because, unlike C++, they could control the language (no ANSI committee to deal with), and they needed to evolve it in order to support the visual development model and the other things they wanted to do. I flashed back to this conversation the first time I saw C#. It occurred to me that the same thought process had probably been at work when Anders and company decided to create a new member of the C language family rather than merely extending C++. People like to accuse Microsoft of creating C# to compete with Java, but I think the need to be able to control and evolve the language as they saw fit must also have played a part.


I’m not sure what Danny’s departure portends for Borland, but it can’t be good. I know Danny well, and I know he’d never make a decision like this impulsively. It makes me wonder what else is going on at Borland. Their loss is definitely Google’s gain. I understand the reasons behind Danny’s decision, but I miss the old days. So, goodbye, my friend. For your sake, let’s hope you find a way to keep what remains of your top engineers from leaving for greener pastures some time soon – some time real soon.


Comments (55)

  1. Marc Scheuner says:

    I guess one of the main reasons for buying Ashton-Tate was INTERBASE ! That’s what Borland really got out of the deal – they didn’t really care for dBase, but a real, full-fledged, highly innovate RDBMS like Interbase was the target of the acquisition.

    Too bad they fumbled that, too, in the end….

  2. MSDNArchive says:

    Frankly, they would have been better off merging with/acquiring Sybase if they wanted a killer DBMS. Microsoft obviously saw the potential in Sybase’s SQL Server product, and the rest is history. Sybase had lame dev tools back then and was the only DBMS with a query optimizer in those days, so it could have been huge for Borland and Sybase.

  3. Hasani says:

    Good read, good read.

    I also recommend SQL MythBusters – "SQL Server is really a Sybase product not a Microsoft one." http://blogs.msdn.com/euanga/archive/2006/01/19/514479.aspx

    Borland might have lost major? marketshare but they still have good competitive products, some of which are free…. *cough* jbuilder *cough*. This was about 3-4years ago…. Microsoft can’t compare to this. A free for 1year express ide, or free .net command line compiler isn’t gonna cut it, though, its a step in the right direction.

    Make the express series available for free 4ever =]

  4. Charles McAllister says:

    I’m going to offer you my opinion, coming from someone who has invested over a million lines of Delphi/Pascal code written over a span of 15 years by me and my father. Whenever I hear about some fiasco, or failed investment by Borland, I can tell you I lose not a moment of sleep. Everything you wrote worries me not the least. Why? Because Borland continues to deliver enhancements to Delphi which are competitive to what I see in the tools market. The only time I ever have doubt about Delphi’s future is when Borland releases an unstable update. In my mind this has happened twice over the past 10 versions (Delphi 4, and Delphi 9). So what. I hear Delphi 10 is the best version ever. Back to coding show’s over…

  5. MSDNArchive says:

    Well, I certainly hope you’re right. I’d like to see them survive indefinitely. I think the industry needs them, and there will always be a small fondness on my part for Borland and Delphi.

  6. Actually, Borland is going lot of good things this time around, it seems that finally they have a good CEO with some good background including your own, BEA and ORACLE. They deliver the first road map ever on the development environment and a very solid and fast Delphi, which is considered once of the best Delphi’s ever… and believe there is no better and hard critic of Borland than their Delphi users. Believe it or not, this time, all is peace and love on Borland newsgroups with Delphi 2006.

  7. MSDNArchive says:

    "In my mind this has happened twice over the past 10 versions (Delphi 4, and Delphi 9). "

    And how did you like Delphi 8? 🙂

    Delphi 2006 is finally back on track, but how could you list Delphi 9 (2005) and omit 8?

  8. MSDNArchive says:

    And let’s not forget that the new Delphi came out at the same time as VS05, but without .NET 2.0 support. That’s a big deal that affects their ability to compete.

  9. SiegfriedN says:

    Interesting history.

    Kylix/CLX is another example of a Borland mistake. Not because of the Kylix concept, but because Borland suddenly stopped maintaining it before it matured. Delphi source investment could have been more valuable. A real shame 🙁

  10. Iman says:

    Where is topspeed now?

    Who is leading in ALM?

    Does any competitor have anything resembling ECO?

    Technologically Borland is ahead of the game, marketing wise they still suck.

    I don’t really think Borland let anyone go, no one can outbid MS for anything. Losing employees is unavoidable. How many MS developers have left, that no one heard about? How many left for google?

  11. TOndrej says:

    Your reply on Google Groups will not appear on Borland’s newsgroups.

    http://info.borland.com/newsgroups/genl_faqs.html#otherservers

  12. MSDNArchive says:

    Thanks, I’ll take care of that.

  13. MR.X says:

    the father of NT kernel Dave Cutler has leaved MS after NT4. WinNT5.2 (win2003 code base) is the best kernel NT ever seen…

    😉

  14. John says:

    Sybase isn’t a real transactionnal RDBMS, and MSSQL still isn’t even in its latest incarnation, at least not in the way Oracle, Interbase or PostGres are, which is that write/update transaction do not block read transactions in consistent mode (transactions are alas still something MSSQL "fakes" rather than "supports").

  15. euanga says:

    John,

    Sorry but I pretty disagree with you, as do the millions of customers of Sybase and Microsoft. SQL Server fully supports transactions as defined in ANSI.

    If you are specifically talking about row versioning(which last time I checked was not defined in ANSI) SQL Server supports this in SQL Server 2005 with both snapshot isolation and read comitted snapshot isolation.

  16. MSDNArchive says:

    John, Euan’s right. SQL Server supports a rich transaction model. It’s a transactional RDBMS in every sense of the term. That may have been debatable 10 or 15 years ago, but it isn’t any longer and hasn’t been in a good long while. If you’re talking about IB’s generational capabilities, SQL Server 2005 has something very similar, as Euan has said.

  17. Ritsaert Hornstra says:

    Borland/inprise have had some very though years but always managed to deliver a new and IMHO viable new release of Delphi. The main reason Delphi prevails over MS devloped applications is that you can take even an D1 application and compile it almost without change in a .Net environment. MS left a lot of VB6 developers out in the cold (one of the largest share of developers in the world). Delphi seems to be taking a lot of those developers into it’s mindshare.

    The same will probably happen when Vista comes out and developing for the new GUI interface will be different. Borland already announced that VCL will continue in the Avalon world.

    True, the compiler does not reach the same level of sophistication but an IDE does NOT depend on the compiler anymore by a longshot. usability, productivity etc are much more improtant. This is where D2006 is currently ahead of VS2005 by a slight margin. If they can keep that up and use the upgrade paths as their asset Borland will keep Delphi a their cashcow and will not cease to exist.

  18. I lamented the slow death of Borland in a recent post and was roundly assailed for it by the Borland…

  19. Dr John says:

    I have the (dubious?) honour of being the only MS consultant ever to recommend Delphi to a client (which had a system written in UNISYS B20 Pascal and wanted to migrate to Windows). Plus, I was doing most of my research in Delphi, and the alternative (VB6) was like an artificial leg on a ballet dancer.

    It is a absolute tragedy that we (as a development community) do not have Borland as a serious contender to MS for Windows-based applications.

    I actually believe that Bill Gates would agree (despite the "Delete Phillippe" stories). Competition is a wonderful thing.

    Take care, all.

    J

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  24. Delpinaut says:

    I’m afraid this just sounds like a bunch of Microsoft FUD to me.

  25. MSDNArchive says:

    There’s no FUD here.  You’re holding the fact that I work for Microsoft against me as though it means I can’t be objective about Borland.  I was a long-time Borland proponent before joining MS, and they will always have a certain place in my heart.  I wrote five books about Borland technologies, for cryin’ out loud.  If anything, working at MS has caused me to be doubly careful about what I say about Borland because people like yourself readily misinterpret anything negative as FUD.  There’s no FUD.  It’s just my opinion, and Borland’s recent missteps sadden me and many others who care about it and its products.

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