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ColdFusion: Article

A New Vision for ColdFusion

The language of innovation

During a recent conversation between Mike Britton, Brian Kotek, and myself, we were discussing the features that we'd like to see in ColdFusion 8. (A podcast of this discussion can be found at helmsandpeters.com.) I'd like to share with you some thoughts on the topic. Much that follows is taken from a talk I gave last year at the Cfobjective conference. It lays the groundwork for a vision for ColdFusion that concludes this article.

Marketers speak of the importance of a product's "positioning." The concept of positioning gained wide acceptance some 25 years ago in the book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. With that book, the authors, Al Ries and Jack Trout, rocked the business world.

Ries's and Trout's thesis is that prospective buyers of a product - and that product can be popcorn, presidents, or programming languages - identify brands by a single word or concept. That word in your prospect's mind is your product's position. According to Ries and Trout, people are so overloaded with information and with the claims of products that marketing messages are distilled down to a single word or, at most, a short phrase.

Let's see if we can identify some commonly held positions for a few well-known brands. See what concept each of these brands occupies in your mind: Volvo, Ritz-Carlton, Haliburton.

For most of us, Volvo conjures up an image of safety; Ritz-Carlton, an image of luxury; and Haliburton, an image of corporate greed. Once established, a brand's position within a prospect's mind is remarkably stable. Marketers who understand the power of positioning are very careful about avoiding counter-positioning - sending a message that differs from the brand's established position. Years ago, Porsche decided to "extend" their brand by producing a reasonably priced car, the Porsche 914. The product was a failure. Why? To most people, a Porsche is a fast, sexy, and expensive car. The 914 was pure counter-positioning.

"Line extension," the strategy employed by Porsche, is very popular among business executives. After all, they reason, why not leverage the strength of our brand and appeal to a different market segment - people who would like a Porsche (who want to associate themselves with that position) but can't afford the brand's pricier offerings?

At best, the market ignores counter-positioning claims. This was the case with Porsche - very few people bought the car. At worst, though, a counter-positioning message confuses people and dilutes the strength of the brand. Chevrolet, at one time, held the position of a modestly priced commuter car. But through line extension - everything from the Nova to the Corvette - Chevrolet has undermined that position. What position does it hold now? As Chevrolet's dwindling sales show, it has no strong position in prospects' minds.

An example of a brand that understands the power of positioning is Toyota. When the company wanted to appeal to a different market segment, people who wanted a luxury car, they created an entirely new brand: Lexus. They established an entirely new brand that could lay claim to the "luxury car" position. The strategy was highly successful: Toyota is a reliable, mid-priced car. Lexus is an expensive, luxury car.

Let's move from the world of cars to one closer to us. What positions do these computer languages hold in the minds of IT executives? Java, COBOL, Ruby, LISP. For most, Java means "enterprise"; COBOL means "legacy"; and LISP means "esoteric". We can see from COBOL that positions can change over time. COBOL was not always viewed so negatively, but times change and, sometimes, peoples' perceptions change with the times.

Now, while you're still inside those executive's heads - and while you're marveling at just how much space there is in there - I want you to think about how those managers would answer this question: What is ColdFusion's position? What one word describes it, not from your point of view, but from theirs?

I've asked this question of several executives. Among words like "easy" and "simple," perhaps the most-commonly used term is "lightweight." And this is a positioning problem. In the world of IT, lightweight is a pejorative term. For IT managers, CIOs, and CTOs, who are very susceptible to herd mentality, Java and C# hold the positions of being industrial-strength, enterprise-grade languages. ColdFusion, alas, does not.

We've all heard, and been annoyed by, the raps against ColdFusion: it's not secure, it's not scalable, etc. And we know that's simply not true. So it might seem that we should concentrate our efforts on showing that ColdFusion is perfectly capable to take on enterprise-mission applications, which we know it to be.

Anyone who's heard the familiar argument that "ColdFusion is Java" or "ColdFusion is the fastest way to build Java applications" will recognize this attempt to set the record straight. Arguments like "ColdFusion is Java" are logical arguments, but positions are held on a deeper, gut-instinct level and, once held, are deeply persistent. It's not that the argument fails so much as the argument is ignored.

Napoleon, the great general, was once asked, "Sir, whose side do you think God is on?" His reply is just as applicable for positioning as it is for warfare. He said, "I have observed that God is most often on the side with the biggest battalions." Apparently, Napoleon is right. In one study by Ries and Trout, 25 different categories of products were examined to see which brands were leaders. The study then looked at the same categories 60 years later. Twenty of those 25 brands still held the number one position.

My question this is morning is this: How do we win this battle for people's minds as it pertains to ColdFusion? Perhaps we should ask another question: Why do we care about the fate of ColdFusion? After all, we learned ColdFusion and we can learn another language. Why bother engaging in a battle at all? I believe it's the same reason that Apple users are so fanatic about their machines and their OS and refuse to capitulate to Windows. It's the same reason that Firefox developers were too foolish to realize that they had no chance against the enormous resources Microsoft committed to IE.

In both of these cases, the side with the smaller battalions were fueled by a powerful idea: that they were right. Many of us do know multiple languages, yet we continue to prefer ColdFusion. While I believe that we are right - that ColdFusion has a vital role to play in the enterprise - we must be strategic in the way we approach the IT executives who make decisions about which languages will be used.

Let me give you an example of one way to approach your CIO. It's done in the form of an e-mail.

From: Me
Subject: ColdFusion in the enterprise

There's been lots of talk lately about using Java for everything. Web stuff. Server-side stuff. You know.

I have two words for this: dumb idea. ColdFusion rocks, dude! Anything you can throw at it, ColdFusion can handle.

Jerry, our company Java weenie, said the other day in a meeting that ColdFusion isn't scalable and that it's not secure. That's bogus.

First, it's just not true. Scalability and security aren't magic features of a language. They're something good developers design for using a language.

Second, if the argument is Java is more scalable and more secure, then - newsflash! - ColdFusion is Java!

Hopefully, you can see now that your idea that maybe we should standardize on Java is just wrong. If you don't believe me, here are some books and articles you ought to read...

And then I proceed to offer a reading list to our CIO to back up my position. Good move, no?

No. If anything is more certain than death and taxes, it's this: people don't change their minds when told they're wrong. What do they do? They dig in. And then the side with the bigger battalions does win.

More Stories By Hal Helms

Hal Helms is a well-known speaker/writer/strategist on software development issues. He holds training sessions on Java, ColdFusion, and software development processes. He authors a popular monthly newsletter series. For more information, contact him at hal (at) halhelms.com or see his website, www.halhelms.com.

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