Sunday, 9 November 2008

The Future of Delphi

It may seem a little presumptuous to claim to know the future. I don’t know the future, and I’m not presumptuous. This is just my guess as to what may happen to Delphi.

I’ve been working with Delphi, since Delphi 1, and with Turbo Pascal before that, I have used every version of Delphi except Delphi 8 (some may say I haven’t missed anything there!) Delphi’s demise has been predicted since about Delphi 3, and that seems like a long time ago. I’m a Delphi developer through and through. Some would say a fan (as in fanatic). So if I was to write about how I see a rosy future for Delphi, you’d instantly, and correctly, think I’m biased. Well, I have taken off those rose-tinted glasses to bring you this post.

Technically I can’t fault Delphi. It makes creating Windows applications so easy. At the same time it’s as powerful as you need it to be. It’s the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, in this world excellence doesn’t guarantee anything, and perhaps in our business more than any other.

At work I use Delphi exclusively. Currently Delphi 2006 and 2007, and no doubt we’ll upgrade to 2009 in the not too distant future. We have a lot of Delphi code, so it makes sense. The trouble is, it’s only that legacy code which keeps us from moving to something else. It’s a combination of things. Probably the most compelling reason is that we just can’t find any good Delphi developers. We can’t even find any bad ones. So recent recruits have been mostly Microsoft developers willing to “downgrade” to Delphi with the promise that we’ll be moving to .NET as soon as possible. The more of these types of developers we recruit, the more clamour there is to ditch Delphi. It’s a vicious circle. We’re in it, and there’s no way out.  I bet many Delphi developers are in the same boat. some perhaps further down the line. With Delphi already consigned to the recycle bin of history.

So what can Emarcadero do to reverse this trend? I guess if I knew, I’d have a job waiting for me at Emarcadero. I don’t have any magic solution, but I do have a few ideas. Let’s look at the .NET strategy (some, more cynical than myself would say “what strategy”) So we have Delphi Prism coming up. Delphi Prism is basically Remobjects Oxygene dressed up as a Codegear product. I’ve messed around with Oxygene, and I’m impressed, but as I said, this is not about technical excellence. My guess is that Remobjects have done this because they’re not selling as much as they hoped they would. If they were wildly successful, they’d have politely declined any overtures from Emarcadero. The fact they didn’t tells me they’re not (wildly successful). On the other hand, I think for Emarcadero to go down this route also means they can’t have been that successful with their previous strategy. If they were, they would have continued down the same road. So it’s a win-win situation. Remobjects get’s more exposure and credibility. Emarcadero get a foot in the .NET world without having to do any work, and have more time to dedicate to native compilers. What does this mean for us Delphi developers? Can somebody (perhaps from Codegear) give me one good reason why anyone would use Delphi Prism over C'# to produce .NET applications? I can’t see any reasons. Some will point to Delphi Prism’s extra language features. Others will say the Pascal language is much cleaner. And guess what I agree. But my manager doesn’t care about futures; He doesn’t care about indexed properties;  He doesn’t care that begin and end and much cleaner than {} All he cares about is that he can find 100s of C# developers when he’s recruiting, and that the industry standard for .NET is C#. In fact if I think with my head and not with my heart, even if it was my decision to make (which it aint!), I’d go for C# (better developers than me have made that decision, so I’m in good company, think Anders, Danny, et al) In fact the only way Delphi for .NET could ever work is if the native compiler is successful. If the native compiler is successful (again) then you have lots of developers who prefer begin and end to {}, and if you’re writing native code in Object Pascal, it makes sense to stick with the same syntax in .NET.

So how do we make Delphi successful again? Can it even be done? What made Delphi successful in the first place? Before Delphi came out, and I was developing DOS applications using Turbo Pascal, my most treasured development tool was my pad with a grid of squares! I’d divide it up into 80 columns and 25 lines, and build my UI. Can you imagine what a radical difference Delphi was? That’s what made it popular. It was just so different. You could create a Windows Application in seconds. No other tool at the time could do that. Not with so much ease, and not with so much power. So innovation was the first reason it was successful. You have to stand out.

The second reason was that most developers coming out of school were Pascal developers. Delphi felt comfortable. I think even if Delphi 1 hadn’t been so good, it would still have been a hit. What do kids learn in school nowadays? Java perhaps! Why has this changed? Turbo Pascal doesn’t exist anymore except in museums. Ok, I’m sure Borland had their academic licences, but I bet it wasn’t easy to get. What they really needed was a version of Delphi that retailed for $49.99. Hey, even that’s expensive. Let’s make it free. I know they tried with their Turbo Delphi range, but it all seemed so half hearted. Borland took their eye off the ball. They thought could get into corporate America through the front door. There’s only one way in, and it’s through the back door. Make Delphi so popular with students and hobbyists that the development world is flooded with Delphi developers creating Delphi applications and components. Basically bring Delphi back to the foreground. I bet a lot of developers think the last Delphi version was Delphi 7, and that Delphi is dead. Hell, I bet a lot of younger developers have never heard of Delphi.

Let me finish on a positive note. Codegear can emulate Delphi’s early success, and can both innovate, and appeal to students/hobbyists. The upcoming 64-bit version of Delphi, may just be that innovation, but it better be good. Create academic versions, and hobbyist versions. Give them away for free or practically nothing . You’ve got to speculate to accumulate. Even if I don’t get to use Delphi professionally, I’d love to carry on writing open source software using Delphi, but not if it costs $899 dollars(just a guess, please don’t email me to tell me it’s cheaper. All I know is that I can’t afford it) Go to schools. Give them free copies.  Make Delphi the choice of up and coming developers. If Codegear can do that, then success with Delphi Prism will follow. It won’t be easy, and if I was a betting man, which I’m not, I wouldn’t put any money on them succeeding. The odds are just stacked against them. But, I wish them well anyway.

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