Profile: Staking Out the Microsoft Component Space
ComponentOne is a big player in a niche it helped create, the third-party development space for Microsoft development tools.
"The Microsoft third-party component space is fiercely competitive," says Gustavo Eydelsteyn, founder of VideoSoft and now managing director of ComponentOne. "But if you're nimble, and if you're willing to rethink your core products every three years, it can be a nice space to be in."
ComponentOne was formed in 2000 by the merger of VideoSoft and Apex, companies that had been in the VB aftermarket component space almost from the beginning. VideoSoft, founded by Eydelsteyn in 1991, kicked off its support of the first version of Visual Basic with its Elastic control. Apex was founded slightly earlier—1987—and entered the VB component market slightly later, during the VB2 timeframe. Apex's background was in databases. The company initially created a core database engine for dBase, and it focused on providing databinding and grid controls for the Visual Basic market. Sunny Wong acquired the company some time later, and he and Eydelsteyn now share the title of managing director of ComponentOne. Wong manages ComponentOne's office on the East Coast, in Pittsburgh, while Eydelsteyn manages the West Coast office based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
VideoSoft and Apex helped create the third-party component space that is ComponentOne's core market. Visual Basic was launched at Windows World in May 1991, and VideoSoft released its first control later that year. Based on a prototype created by Alan Cooper and sold to Microsoft, Visual Basic was a highly innovative programming language that married the ease of the Basic programming language to the then more arcane task of creating Windows applications—which had been notoriously difficult to create prior to the release of Visual Basic.
One of the key ways that VB simplified programming for Windows: It let you build programs visually, with pre-made graphical components that you dragged and dropped onto a form, then wired together with code to create application functionality. This in itself was a significant innovation. It took a lot of complex code to draw even basic windows if you used C, and Visual Basic slashed the difficulty level of building these windows. But Visual Basic took this idea one step further. Microsoft made its toolbox of pre-made controls extensible. Third-party companies were able to plug into VB's architecture to add a wide variety of widgets and other graphical controls, usually for only a nominal cost to the consumer. And a market was born.
Much has changed in the third-party component market over the years. Visual Basic as a language grew more powerful, and the components that plug into the tool grew both more powerful and more sophisticated. Microsoft adopted a VB-like integrated development environment (IDE) for all its development languages, including C#, which were made similarly extensible, although providing controls and services for VB remained the main focus for those who exist in the third-party add-on space. As the market itself matured, companies such as VideoSoft and Apex went from selling single components for $99 or so, to selling entire suites of components for hundreds of dollars, and more, in some cases.
VideoSoft and Apex both helped create and grow the market for third-party development tools for Microsoft programming environments. Both companies expanded their repertoires of available components, with VideoSoft adding spell checkers, grid controls, and other GUI enhancements; Apex added to its offerings of database and databinding controls. The pace of change was always torrid, with Microsoft offering radically upgraded versions of Visual Basic (and later, Visual Studio) roughly every three to five years. So, Visual Basic 3 introduced significant new database and UI enhancements in 1993, and Visual Basic 5 introduced the ability to create extensible DLLs and custom controls that extended and added to the controls provided in the VB toolbox. The most recent major change represented the most radical of these periodic upgrades: the introduction of .NET in 2001, which completely altered the VB programming language and introduced its sibling language, C#.
With each major revision of Microsoft's development tools, companies such as VideoSoft, Apex, and later, ComponentOne, were forced to reimagine and reinvent their product lineups. Often, the best ideas of the third-party component vendors were incorporated directly into the development tools themselves.
Notes Eydelsteyn: "Microsoft is a big elephant. But it's a considerate elephant. It tells you when it's going to move in a particular direction well before it actually does so. If your main business is in that area, then you run for another area or figure out a new way to add value based on the changes that you know are coming."
Sometimes Microsoft doesn't merely incorporate your idea, but incorporates your entire tool. For example, Microsoft has incorporated components from both VideoSoft and Apex directly into the Visual Basic/Visual Studio toolboxes for developers to use. It's a strong advertisement to a company's products to be included in the box in this manner, but it also means you have to go out and reinvent your product to add new value. When Microsoft licensed VideoSoft's FlexGrid 2 product for inclusion in the box, VideoSoft had a version 3 upgrade that introduced more than 100 new features ready to go as soon as the version of VB that included FlexGrid 2 shipped, says Eydelsteyn.
ComponentOne has a distinctly international flavor. Eydelsteyn hails originally from Buenos Aires, while Wong hails originally from Hong Kong. ComponentOne publishes its tools in three languages: English, Chinese, and Japanese, and the company's Web site claims sales in 35 countries. Eydelsteyn notes that half the company sales are domestic and half are international. He also notes that 75 percent of Fortune 100 companies use ComponentOne products. The company supports only the Windows development community with its products.
ComponentOne has approximately 85 full-time employees, including 30 full-time developers. These employees are scattered around the world, from Brazil, to Russia, to China, to India, to Pittsburgh. The company does all its own development in-house, but it's a global house. "It doesn't matter where the work happens," says Eydelsteyn. "What matters is whether the work is done on time, and done correctly."
The company develops no products outside the Windows world at this time, but it does create add-ons for other Windows-based development IDEs, including Borland's Delphi. Its big plans for the immediate future center around preparing for the impending release of Windows Vista, which promises to remake the developer space around components, especially GUI components. With the release of any new look-and-feel from Microsoft, companies such as ComponentOne scramble to give developers new tools that help them re-create that look-and-feel of Microsoft's current products. Windows Vista will be no different, and the changes promised in the next version of Microsoft's consumer-oriented operating system will be the biggest ones faced by component developers since the introduction of .NET.
"Yes, it's a lot of work to keep up with these new technologies, but we are grateful for the work," says Eydelsteyn. "Because each time Microsoft introduces a major revision to either its development tools or to its Windows or Office environments, it presents companies like ComponentOne with a lot of great new opportunities."
Patrick Meader is editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine.