Can Adobe make ColdFusion hot (again) or not?

It's not dead (or even dying), it's just...

There was CGI, Java and even C. But for building Web sites during the dot-com boom, nothing was hotter than ColdFusion.

Created by Allaire more than a decade ago, ColdFusion enabled Web 1.0 developers to quickly build sophisticated Web sites whose Web pages -- easily identified by the .cfm at the end of the page name -- were generated on-the-fly via a back-end database, rather than hardcoded using HTML.

ColdFusion also won over developers by letting them "get to a higher level of abstraction above the code so they could build things faster," said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst with The Burton Group. "The Allaire brothers were way ahead of the curve."

At its peak, ColdFusion vied with JavaScript for popularity with Web programmers, according to a 1998 survey by IDC.

But while JavaScript -- the 'J' in AJAX -- is still hot, ColdFusion cooled down rapidly after the dot-com crash.

As dot-coms went out of business and were replaced by thriftier Web 2.0 startups, ColdFusion's relatively high cost hurt.

Though ColdFusion has long had a free developer edition, production licenses for the latest ColdFusion 8 cost either US$1,299 or US$7,500 for up to two servers.

Meanwhile, a multitude of free or open-source tools existed for the languages that gradually supplanted ColdFusion. They include PERL, Python, PHP, (the 'P' in the LAMP software stack for open-source Web servers) Ruby on Rails and even ASP.Net, Microsoft's own entry into this space.

"The market went nuts for ColdFusion and Java in the 1990s. Then there was a backlash, with everyone embracing scripting languages as being 'good enough,'" O'Kelly said.

According to TIOBE Software's ranked list of programming languages, ColdFusion ranks only 28th in terms of estimated popularity.

ColdFusion also slipped after Macromedia Inc. acquired ColdFusion in 2001.

Recognizing, according to Buntel, that the "application server was being commoditized," Macromedia right after the acquisition focused on rebuilding ColdFusion into a Java-based (J2EE) application server.

The problem, admits Kevin Lynch, Macromedia and now Adobe's chief software architect, is that "there weren't a lot of new features coming out, as we were just making it work with Java."

Not dead, just... stealthy

Back in May, Computerworld listed ColdFusion, along with cc:Mail and OS/2, in an article about "The top 10 dead or dying computer skills."

The article generated heated comments and blog posts from ColdFusion loyalists.

Indeed, ColdFusion is still used by about 400,000 developers, according to Tim Buntel, ColdFusion's longtime marketing manager during an interview at Adobe System's MAX user conference in Chicago last week.

Changing user demographics -- as consumer Web startups abandoned ColdFusion, enterprises and large organizations kept using it for private intranets -- created the perception of a greater decline than actually occurred, Buntel said.

"We have much deeper penetration for enterprise apps that are behind the firewall," Buntel said.

But he also conceded that the lack of momentum around ColdFusion has hurt sales.

ColdFusion "is not a lost cause, marketing-wise," he said. "But it has been a challenge for us to find an exciting new story to share with people."

Schools also abandoned teaching ColdFusion, another reason why today's typical young Web 2.0 developer equates ColdFusion with Cobol.

"There's only one ColdFusion class here and it's not in the computer science department," said Michael De Jonghe, a ColdFusion programmer at the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering.

Getting schools to teach ColdFusion "has been a challenge," Buntel said. "But since we were bought by Adobe in 2005, we are starting to see more schools teaching ColdFusion again."

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Eric Lai

Computerworld
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