Who's Afraid of the Big .NET?

Holland-based Servoy aims to blur the lines between software on the desktop and software as a service. Can the little Dutch company take on Microsoft and win? Cringely weighs in (woozily) with a first person report.

You may have noticed this has been a slow week in Cringeville. Well now the truth can be told. For the past five days I've been held captive in Amsterdam by a small group of mad Dutchmen. They locked me in the tower of a Swiss hotel, trundled me into a van with three other captives, drove us around the Dutch countryside until we were disoriented, and forced us to consume vast quantities of rich foods delivered in thimble-sized portions accompanied by heroic volumes of tangy Teutonic wine. It was Hell.

Only through extreme cunning did I manage to escape – leaping into a passing cab and smuggling myself aboard a flight to the States so I could file this report.

The company behind this sinister scheme is named Servoy. Their master plan: to convince me and a handful of other tech journos they had a new way to build custom applications – and, possibly, do battle with Microsoft's .Net empire.

Their idea is simple and compelling. Servoy's tools allow developers to build a single Java-based application that connects to any SQL database, runs under any desktop operating system, and displays on virtually any device – whether a smart client on the desktop, a thin client browser, or a mobile handset.

To build a simple app in Servoy 4.0 you choose from a library of prefab objects, drag them into place on a form, and connect them to the relevant data stores. In a live demo, Servoy CEO Jan Aleman built and published a form-based GUI that pulls information from three disparate databases in about five minutes – or less time than it takes me to create a Windows Live ID. The form looked and functioned identically, whether it ran on desktop or inside a Web browser.

The ability to create (and maintain) a single code base for Windows, Mac, Linux, and Unix desktops, as well as a variety of browsers, could save software geeks oodles of time and money. Servoy claims its customers can develop Web apps many times faster than by using Microsoft's .Net, and for a fraction of the cost.

Of course, even Microsoft products look good in demos, and without more independent testing it's impossible to evaluate those claims. Using these tools under real world conditions is where the banden meets the straat. I'm nowhere near a big enough geek to figure that one out, even if I wasn't still recovering from a smoked eel- and Trockenbeerenauslese-induced coma.

The notion of an unknown Dutch company taking on Microsoft's .Net is a little like Schwinn Bicycles deciding to compete head to head with General Motors, or a fuzzy white bunny squaring off against an anaconda. It's not for the squeamish.

Though Servoy has managed to get its technology inside a few big companies (Sony, Wells Fargo, Proctor and Gamble), it has almost zero name recognition. Its primary customers are independent software vendors that build custom CRM and ERP apps for small to medium businesses and then slap their own labels on it. You could be using Servoy-powered apps and not even know it.

They also have a fraction of the resources Microsoft could bring to such a fight – provided of course the giant anaconda looks up and notices that Servoy is in the cage with it, baring its big bunny teeth.

The road to digital nirvana is littered with the remains of much larger companies Redmond has digested or destroyed. But even Microsoft is starting to recognize that it's not just a Desktop/Windows world any more. And you have to admire Servoy's big brass ballen.

.Net or .Not? What do you use to build Web apps? Looking to change? Post your thoughts below or email me here -- cringe (at) infoworld (dot) com. Top entres qualify for koele giften.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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