You know the whole rubbernecking thing, where people slow down near an accident so they can take a moment to look at the carnage? I kinda feel like I’m rubbernecking whenever I read about the slow decline of Borland, as in this little piece on Valleywag earlier today. Because everything that company has done lately seems to be a wreck, and like a spectacular car crash, I cannot turn away. I can only look and wonder how on earth the accident happened.

This will only expose how old I am, but I actually wrote a DOS Turbo Pascal application in my first job out of college. Borland tools were just head-and-shoulders better than anything Microsoft was churning out. At the time, Turbo Pascal was possibly the best development environment around. Compared to the command-line VAX compilers I’d used in college, this thing was a dream. It made me realize PCs were definitely going to rule the world, if they had development tools that much better than the stuff on mainframes and VAXes.

But then Borland stumbled trying to become a general-purpose software company churning out spreadsheets (Quatro Pro) and database software (Paradox). They spent a ton of time, money, and focus trying to beat Microsoft at Redmond’s game instead of doubling-down on the one area — software development tools, where they had a substantial lead.

The rest is history so well-known it’s almost folklore. Microsoft crushed Borland (and later Corel) in the desktop applications business. And when Visual Studio came out, it marked the beginning of the end for Borland’s development tools business. Those early releases weren’t impressive, but in typical Microsoft fashion, each release got better and better until Visual Studio was just so much better than anything Borland was putting out. 

Yeah Microsoft may have cheated, seeing as how they were also building the OS that the dev environments were targeting. But I think Borland could have kept ahead of Redmond if they’d stayed focused. Look at Intuit — Quicken is still the big player in personal financial software despite Microsoft’s best efforts because, unlike Borland, Intuit stayed focused on their core competency.

Now even if Borland had stayed focused, they would still be faced today with the challenge of open-source software. I mean, who wants to pay money for a dev tool from Borland when Eclipse is free? But again, I think if they’d stayed focused, they might have found a way to navigate these treacherous waters. As I commented on the Valleywag piece, Red Hat has proven you can make money in open source — you just have to find a niche that you can fill. Maybe Borland could have been a bigger player in the early Eclipse days and then turned around to sell value-added tools and support on top of Eclipse.

Instead Borland has stumbled badly. First, they turned down a cash offer for their development tools business, then they spun it out as CodeGear for a possible sale or IPO, but now it’s getting sucked back in to Borland (notice that the logo on the CodeGear site says “CodeGear from Borland”).

And while they’ve had some success with their other businesses, their messaging around this “application lifecycle management” track has often been lackluster and confusing. Ask 10 developers about Borland, and count how many know about the IDEs vs. how many know about the ALM products.

I reluctantly have to agree with the Valleywag posting at least when it comes to IDEs — the latest moves regarding CodeGear make me think at some point they will have to jettison that business entirely. Ironically, perhaps they will open source it, and find a new life for the products that way.

What do you think?  Is it over for Borland?  What could they have done differently to still be relevant in the development tools space?