SYS-CON MEDIA Authors: Zakia Bouachraoui, Liz McMillan, Carmen Gonzalez, Roger Strukhoff, David Linthicum

Related Topics: PowerBuilder

PowerBuilder: Article

The Little PowerBuilder App that Grew

PowerBuilder provides a powerful environment for creating end-user applications whose primary purpose is data entry & reporting

This article will describe the development of a fairly large (over 4,000 users) one-man software business, selling an application developed with PowerBuilder. I'll touch on a number of technical issues I encountered in the development of the program and the business.

How the Business Got Started
The DONATION program is used by small to mid-sized charities and churches, mostly in North America, to track their donors and donations, and to issue charitable receipts. The first version was actually written in C, in 1994, to fill a gap at my own Quaker Meeting, after a commercial program we had bought started falling apart (no referential integrity). I decided I could write something better. By 1999, it was time to create a Windows version, and the PowerBuilder version was born.

Having put so much work into it by this time, I felt there was no point having only one organization use it, so I put it up for free download and use on a web site. At that point I had a regular programming job and had no desire to make a business out of it. A few years later, I started inviting voluntary contributions for it, but that never did any more than pay my expenses for hosting, software, etc. After 8 years of giving it away for free, there were over 4,000 users.

In 2007, I thought I would like to open source the application, partly to provide a way for it to continue to exist if anything should happen to me, like being run over by a truck! PowerBuilder did not seem ideal for an open source app - too few programmers, plus it's a bit expensive. So, I took a three-month leave of absence from my job, and started a .NET port.

Two months in, I was less than halfway done, and could see that although .NET's database access capabilities had improved significantly, they were nowhere near matching PowerBuilder's. Visual Studio didn't even include a report builder whose runtime could be distributed as part of an open source app. So, after serious reflection, I decided to abandon the port (and the open source idea), go back and continue development with PowerBuilder, quit my job, and start a business with DONATION. I was so relieved to have a powerful, comprehensive and fast development environment back, not to mention one where I didn't have to wait for compiles to test small changes.

The business was launched by announcing to all users that while they were welcome to keep using their current versions for free, future upgrades and support would require a small payment, with a discount being given to existing users. Fortunately, many users paid right away, and the business continued to grow from there.

Issues with SQL Anywhere / Adaptive Server Anywhere
For quite a few years, the program used Sybase SQL Anywhere / ASA as its database. It was in most respects perfect for this use - a great embedded DB, requiring no administration, and rock solid. However, there were two problems.

The first was that the runtime version that could be freely distributed with PowerBuilder applications did not allow any Data Definition Language to be used. As a result, any time I had to make changes to the database structure, like adding new fields to tables, I had to go through a rather convoluted and scary process. First, create a new empty database with the new fields. Then, add code to the program, using Pipelines, to convert from the previous database structure to the new one. Finally, make a new version of my installer that installed the new empty database, and have the first run of the application do the conversion.

Although I could have sold copies of the full ASA to users to eliminate this limitation, this was not an option when the program was free. Even when the program became commercial, the price was so low that adding in the price of an ASA license did not seem to be a reasonable option. (Plus, it would have eliminated the option of giving a free 60-day evaluation period, which I do.)

The other problem was an odd one. Periodically, users' ODBC data sources that had been installed by the program's installer for the ASA DB just stopped working, for no apparent reason. Deleting the data sources and rerunning the installer sometimes fixed it, and sometimes didn't. Sometimes, the information about the driver also had to be removed directly using the Registry Editor before a reinstall would fix it. And very occasionally, nothing I could do would fix it, and the user would have to give up and use the app on a different computer.

Taking these two points together, I finally decided as part of a significant relaunch after abandoning the .NET port to switch to an open source DB with an embedded option. I chose Firebird SQL. It has proven to be a very capable and solid database, though its SQL dialect does have a few weaknesses in comparison to that of SQL Anywhere, such as far fewer built-in functions. Also, it does not support UPDATE statements with FROM clauses, so UPDATEs involving data from multiple tables have to use subqueries as columns' values. The server version of Firebird was also eventually used to provide a multi-user version of DONATION.

Working Around Some PowerBuilder Limitations
DONATION uses PowerBuilder's built-in DataWindow (DW) Sort and Filter dialogs, and until recently also used its DW SaveAs dialog, to give users these capabilities. You can specify a help file and help topic to be used in a Help button on those dialogs, which is extremely helpful since they are a bit techie for end users. Unfortunately, only old-style WinHelp files (*.hlp) can be used, not the more modern HTML Help (*.chm) files. Starting in Windows Vista, Windows no longer comes by default with the capability to display WinHelp files. I am a bit amazed that this still has not been fixed in PowerBuilder, despite being identified as a problem quite a few versions ago. As a result, I have to distribute both a WinHelp help file (for use in those three dialogs) and an HTML Help file (for use everywhere else in the program) with my application.

An annoying weakness of the DW SaveAs dialog is that it doesn't return the filename or file type that the user saved. As a result, it's impossible for an app to do things like offer to open a file saved in Excel format in Excel for the user. Also, if you aren't using one of PowerBuilder's two ways of saving PDF files, the PDF SaveAs option just silently fails. Providing my own SaveAs window allowed me to limit the types to those that I thought would most likely be used by the program's users, and also do things like use a third-party tool DW2XLS (see sidebar) to export almost perfectly formatted versions of reports to Excel.

Speaking of PDF, neither PDF option provided by PB seemed sufficient for DONATION's needs - one required end users to separately download GhostScript, something unrealistic for my users (many of whom are not computer experts), and the other just doesn't work for some report types. As a result, I ended up including a commercial PDF printer driver with API capabilities into the application (novaPDF SDK - see sidebar), which mostly works very well.

Mail Merge
The application required mail merge capabilities for users to send correspondence, including thank you letters to donors about their donations, and to allow users to format their own charitable receipts if they didn't like the built-in receipts in the program (which were normal PB reports).

For years this was done in DONATION by controlling Microsoft Word or WordPerfect via OLE. This was awkward and didn't provide a good user experience because it involved going in and out of the program, and using another UI that they might not be familiar with. (They would probably be familiar with their word processor, but not necessarily with its mail merge features.)

In addition, because I was using the mail merge features in those word processors, there was no way to do anything like sub-reports, which were optimally required for the charitable receipts. (Many users, especially in churches, want a main section describing the total donation amount, for the government, and a second section, for them to keep, listing the details - date, amount and donation category - of each donation.)

To work around these issues required taking another approach, with some form of embedded word processor that could be controlled with an API, to do the merging programmatically. I looked at some commercial options, such as TX Text Control, but ended up with a much simpler solution: have the merge files be HTML files, edited using Internet Explorer's Design Mode.

Design Mode is a little-known feature of IE (at least, it was unknown to me). Activating it turns IE into a relatively simple but still relatively capable HTML editor. You embed an IE control into a PB window, add some menus and toolbars that activate functions in IE's OLE API, and you have something that works really well. Fortunately, there is a freely usable PowerBuilder example of doing this, at http://www.topwizprogramming.com/freecode_webbrowser.html.

After enhancing that to add mail merge features, including special mail merge fields that handled the required subreports, everything worked extremely smoothly (see Figure 1). For cases when the editing capabilities of Design Mode were insufficient, an option was given to edit the HTML file in MS Word. (The editor window's activate event is used to check for the file being saved externally and prompt to reload it.)

Conclusion
PowerBuilder provides a powerful environment for creating end-user applications whose primary purpose is data entry and reporting, such as DONATION. It allows me to be very fast and responsive about fixing bugs and creating new features needed by the program's many users, and to design an application usable even by users who consider themselves to be fairly computer-illiterate.

More Stories By Dan Cooperstock

Dan Cooperstock is the owner and sole staff person of Cooperstock Software, which creates and sells the DONATION program from www.Software4Nonprofits.com. He has been a professional programmer for nearly 30 years, working for a range of employers, including both small and large software companies, and financial institutions. Although his income as a one-man software business is lower than it was as an employed programmer, and he doesn’t get to do as much programming (you can’t keep forcing features on users!), he finds the job satisfaction greatly outweighs those other factors. He has used PowerBuilder since version 5.

Comments (0)

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


Latest Stories
Moroccanoil®, the global leader in oil-infused beauty, is thrilled to announce the NEW Moroccanoil Color Depositing Masks, a collection of dual-benefit hair masks that deposit pure pigments while providing the treatment benefits of a deep conditioning mask. The collection consists of seven curated shades for commitment-free, beautifully-colored hair that looks and feels healthy.
The textured-hair category is inarguably the hottest in the haircare space today. This has been driven by the proliferation of founder brands started by curly and coily consumers and savvy consumers who increasingly want products specifically for their texture type. This trend is underscored by the latest insights from NaturallyCurly's 2018 TextureTrends report, released today. According to the 2018 TextureTrends Report, more than 80 percent of women with curly and coily hair say they purcha...
The textured-hair category is inarguably the hottest in the haircare space today. This has been driven by the proliferation of founder brands started by curly and coily consumers and savvy consumers who increasingly want products specifically for their texture type. This trend is underscored by the latest insights from NaturallyCurly's 2018 TextureTrends report, released today. According to the 2018 TextureTrends Report, more than 80 percent of women with curly and coily hair say they purcha...
We all love the many benefits of natural plant oils, used as a deap treatment before shampooing, at home or at the beach, but is there an all-in-one solution for everyday intensive nutrition and modern styling?I am passionate about the benefits of natural extracts with tried-and-tested results, which I have used to develop my own brand (lemon for its acid ph, wheat germ for its fortifying action…). I wanted a product which combined caring and styling effects, and which could be used after shampo...
The precious oil is extracted from the seeds of prickly pear cactus plant. After taking out the seeds from the fruits, they are adequately dried and then cold pressed to obtain the oil. Indeed, the prickly seed oil is quite expensive. Well, that is understandable when you consider the fact that the seeds are really tiny and each seed contain only about 5% of oil in it at most, plus the seeds are usually handpicked from the fruits. This means it will take tons of these seeds to produce just one b...
Steaz, the nation's top-selling organic and fair trade green-tea-based beverage company, announces its 2017 "Mind. Body. Soul." tour, which will bring authentic experiences inspired by the brand's signature Mind. Body. Soul. tagline to life across the country. The tour will inform, educate, inspire and entertain through events, digital activations and partner-curated experiences developed to support the three pillars of complete health and wellness.
The platform combines the strengths of Singtel's extensive, intelligent network capabilities with Microsoft's cloud expertise to create a unique solution that sets new standards for IoT applications," said Mr Diomedes Kastanis, Head of IoT at Singtel. "Our solution provides speed, transparency and flexibility, paving the way for a more pervasive use of IoT to accelerate enterprises' digitalisation efforts. AI-powered intelligent connectivity over Microsoft Azure will be the fastest connected pat...
There are many examples of disruption in consumer space – Uber disrupting the cab industry, Airbnb disrupting the hospitality industry and so on; but have you wondered who is disrupting support and operations? AISERA helps make businesses and customers successful by offering consumer-like user experience for support and operations. We have built the world’s first AI-driven IT / HR / Cloud / Customer Support and Operations solution.
ScaleMP is presenting at CloudEXPO 2019, held June 24-26 in Santa Clara, and we’d love to see you there. At the conference, we’ll demonstrate how ScaleMP is solving one of the most vexing challenges for cloud — memory cost and limit of scale — and how our innovative vSMP MemoryONE solution provides affordable larger server memory for the private and public cloud. Please visit us at Booth No. 519 to connect with our experts and learn more about vSMP MemoryONE and how it is already serving some of...
Darktrace is the world's leading AI company for cyber security. Created by mathematicians from the University of Cambridge, Darktrace's Enterprise Immune System is the first non-consumer application of machine learning to work at scale, across all network types, from physical, virtualized, and cloud, through to IoT and industrial control systems. Installed as a self-configuring cyber defense platform, Darktrace continuously learns what is ‘normal' for all devices and users, updating its understa...
Codete accelerates their clients growth through technological expertise and experience. Codite team works with organizations to meet the challenges that digitalization presents. Their clients include digital start-ups as well as established enterprises in the IT industry. To stay competitive in a highly innovative IT industry, strong R&D departments and bold spin-off initiatives is a must. Codete Data Science and Software Architects teams help corporate clients to stay up to date with the mod...
As you know, enterprise IT conversation over the past year have often centered upon the open-source Kubernetes container orchestration system. In fact, Kubernetes has emerged as the key technology -- and even primary platform -- of cloud migrations for a wide variety of organizations. Kubernetes is critical to forward-looking enterprises that continue to push their IT infrastructures toward maximum functionality, scalability, and flexibility. As they do so, IT professionals are also embr...
Platform9, the leader in SaaS-managed hybrid cloud, has announced it will present five sessions at four upcoming industry conferences in June: BCS in London, DevOpsCon in Berlin, HPE Discover and Cloud Computing Expo 2019.
At CloudEXPO Silicon Valley, June 24-26, 2019, Digital Transformation (DX) is a major focus with expanded DevOpsSUMMIT and FinTechEXPO programs within the DXWorldEXPO agenda. Successful transformation requires a laser focus on being data-driven and on using all the tools available that enable transformation if they plan to survive over the long term. A total of 88% of Fortune 500 companies from a generation ago are now out of business. Only 12% still survive. Similar percentages are found throug...
When you're operating multiple services in production, building out forensics tools such as monitoring and observability becomes essential. Unfortunately, it is a real challenge balancing priorities between building new features and tools to help pinpoint root causes. Linkerd provides many of the tools you need to tame the chaos of operating microservices in a cloud native world. Because Linkerd is a transparent proxy that runs alongside your application, there are no code changes required. I...