The products include a new developer framework designed to let programmers with minimal Java training create Web services applications using Java. The company also released a beta version of an upgrade to its WebLogic application server, and announced current versions of WebLogic for IBM mainframe computers running OS/390 or Linux.
The company also announced the purchase of a Swedish company that makes a Java Virtual Machine for use on large corporate servers.
The announcements were made at the start of BEA eWorld, the company's annual conference for developers. Alfred Chuang, BEA's founder, chairman and chief executive, expected to demonstrate the new products during his keynote speech, where he will also outline BEA's strategy.
The conference comes at an important time for BEA, which established an early lead among application server vendors but has since faced mounting pressure from larger rivals including IBM, Sun and Oracle. Those vendors see application servers as potential big money-makers, as well as a strategic sale that can help them push related services and products, said Shawn Willett, an analyst with Current Analysis.
"Times are changing for BEA," he said. Application servers have become commodities to a large extent, with each vendor offering similar features, and BEA is under pressure to maintain its edge by more tightly integrating its WebLogic products and offering new tools to lure developers, he added.
Besides the struggle for leadership among BEA, IBM and Sun, the Java community as a whole is fending off Microsoft's attempts to lure developers away from Java and towards its competing .net initiative. The company launched Visual Studio .net in early February, a new version of its developer tools for building applications that can be tied together over the Web.
Although Microsoft still has to convince customers that its software is secure and reliable enough for large-scale corporate applications, its new tools appear "very attractive, easy to use and powerful," said Mike Gilpin, a research fellow at Giga. "It's necessary for the key J2EE players to respond; Cajun will be BEA's response to that."
The new developer framework, called WebLogic Workshop, is supposed to allow developers trained in Cobol, Visual Basic and other programming languages to create Web services using Java and Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE). Known formerly by the code name "Cajun," it was developed partly in response to customers who said that Java developers are expensive and hard to find, said Byron Sebastian, a BEA senior product manager.
Workshop uses visual interfaces that allow developers to design Java objects while still thinking about their code in terms of the "events" and "methods" associated with other programming models. Skilled Java developers are still needed to do low work such as message queuing, but other developers can make use of that code without being familiar with complex J2EE APIs, Sebastian said.
"The developer writes the application logic and decides how applications will fit together, and the framework figures out the right plumbing to make all that happen," he said.
One analyst said the product could help solve "the primary strategic weakness" of Java - that its complexity limits its use to a relatively small field of developers. "Even the people who are firmly behind the J2EE platform occasionally have concerns on that point," said Gilpin.
BEA is working with a number of vendors to allow their packaged applications to be incorporated into the framework in the future, allowing a developer to use Workshop in conjunction with an application from PeopleSoft, for example. Workshop also includes new tools for testing and debugging software more quickly, Byron said.
A beta version is available for download now at BEA's new resource for developers, at dev2dev.bea.com, the company said. The final product is expected to ship in the middle of the year.
WebLogic Server 7.0, the upgrade to BEA's application server, was also released in beta on 25 February. New features include a graphical security-policy editor that lets administrators assign access to applications based on rules.
With the acquisition of Swedish company Appeal Virtual Machines, BEA plans to optimise Appeal's JVM for use on 32-bit and 64-bit servers based on Intel microprocessors. Until now, the only "credible" JVMs available have been sold by vendors who also sell their own servers, operating systems or databases, which made it "problematic" for customers who use standard Intel-based servers, according to BEA.
Appeal's Rockit JVM has advanced I/O, memory management and multithreading functions that make it well suited for use with hefty server applications used by large corporations, BEA said.
BEA maintained its lead in 2001 with 36% of total revenue in the application server market, according to the most recent estimate from Giga.
Gilpin noted that IBM has worked hard to bridge the gap in functionality between WebLogic and its own WebSphere products. The computing giant narrowed BEA's market share lead from 2000 but remained slightly behind with 34%, Giga estimated. Sun and Oracle trailed, each with less than 10%.
"Clearly BEA is still the technology leader but the gap has been narrowing and there are some cases where IBM may have moved ahead," Gilpin said. "Some data suggests that the (performance) benchmarks are not dissimilar either - WebSphere is a lot faster than it used to be."