Review of Clarion 4 from TopSpeed
Shawn M. Gordon
S.M.Gordon & Associates
RAD (Rapid Application Development) Windows development has been the buzz word and rage for the last few years, and with every new release of products such as Visual Basic, Delphi, and Powerbuilder, you get more and more bang for your buck. You can build larger, more complex applications, faster and easier than ever before. The one thing that I have always found to be lacking however is the ability to work with a database in a convenient fashion.
This brings us to the subject of this month’s review, Clarion version 4. Clarion is one of the best data-centric RAD tool’s that I have used under MS Windows. Through the use of wizards, dictionaries, a high level language, templates, ODBC drivers, and other tools, Clarion manages to be an amazing 4GL that doesn’t hamstring you.
I did a review of Clarion version 1.5 a couple years ago, and I was very impressed with it at the time, but I waited a few versions to do another review because I wanted to see a dramatic change in the product, and version 4 provides that. I tested Clarion on my 133Mhz Pentium system with just 16 Meg of RAM, running Windows 95. This is actually going to be a 2 part review. There is an Internet add-on for Clarion that allows you to further leverage your code by allowing you to generate native Java applications from your Clarion application with just a few mouse clicks. It seemed to me that trying to cover all those goodies in one review was going to be a bit much. So look for Clarion part 2 in a month or two.
The first thing to keep in mind about Clarion is that TopSpeed has created its own object framework that is centered on database access and manipulation as opposed to the user interface like VB and Delphi. This data-centric approach is far superior for anyone wanting to create database oriented applications. This means that
you have an enormous number of tools for viewing and manipulating your data dictionary, see figure 1 for an example of the Data Dictionary Viewer.
The new Application Builder Classes (ABC) provide a new object oriented framework to Clarion to replace the older style templates. This is a great advance for Clarion and allows you to really speed up the creation of large business application systems.
Clarion takes some more up front thinking than other RAD products. You will want to build your database and data dictionary up front. Once this is done, you can build a default application against your database that allows you to browse, add and delete without writing a line of code. The closest I’ve ever come to this in
the past was Speedware on the HP 3000.
One of the Clarion manuals gives a history of the evolution of the language, and it’s quit interesting to read. They basically borrowed things from almost every other language. The point was to keep from having to type unnecessary syntax like Pascal BEGIN..END constructs, or the MOVE verb in COBOL. They also wanted to make
sure that business rules were easily available, so you have all the types of variables you would expect in VB or C, as well as more business oriented variables like DECIMAL, STRING and GROUP, in all there are about 20 different variable types. Take a look at Figure 2 to see an example of some Clarion source code.
Clarion 4 also supports VBX and OCX/ActiveX controls, as well as ODBC, and OLE (which it would have to if it supports OCX). This means that any investment you have made in third party controls, or perhaps you’ve made some yourself, can be maintained. I know I’m big on communication controls, because who wants to rewrite that kind of stuff. Theoretically you could front end an HP 3000 based Image database with Clarion by using ODBC, but I never tried it.
There is a lot to Clarion obviously, and I have limited space. I hope this gives some flavor for it’s possibilities.
Usability (also installation)
The software installs pretty much like everything else these days, pop in the CD, answer some questions, make sure you have enough disk space (about 80 meg I think) and go get a cup of coffee while the software installs.
There is more of a learning curve to Clarion than with VB or Delphi I think, but you will be more productive in Clarion than those other languages very quickly. The documentation is so good, and the tutorials are so complete that you really won’t need to go anywhere else to get information, such as buying one of those “Tech yourself in 21 days” books.
Overall the product did well, but I had some sample applications that I was running that came with the software that just wouldn’t compile. I would imagine it was because of bugs in the code, and not a problem with Clarion. The IDE was very dependable, and I didn’t have any problems. Even programs that had bugs worked didn’t cause any Windows types of failures or problems, but I didn’t try to be exhaustive about it.
The performance of the Clarion IDE is pretty good, on my system some task’s where a bit slow coming up, but it wasn’t too bad. Compiling was about the same speed as Delphi from what I could tell, which is pretty darn quick. The performance of a Clarion application is nothing short of amazing, especially when you consider that this is a 4gl. Their compiler is an incredible piece of work, you can generate native 16 bit, and 32 bit applications, as well as Java apps using the Internet Connect add-on.
Supportability (including Doc)
You can’t really count on direct support from most of these companies anymore, but with tools like Compuserve and the Internet, there tends to be more than enough resources available to answer your questions. It’s rare to go more than an hour without having at least someone chime in with a response. I found Compuserve to be a very good resource.
The documentation is totally great, I’ve never seen such complete and easy to read documentation in a PC package, especially these days where a product like Visual Basic which show’s up with no hard copy documentation. Clarion has a short Getting Started guide, which is a quick 30 minute guide, then you can move on to the Learning Clarion manual, which has more in depth tutorials. Then of course you have the two huge manuals for the language reference and developer guide.
Training classes are offered around the country periodically, and you can also go out to Florida and get some training as well. Depending on how seriously you commit to this platform you might find classes good, but I thought the documentation and online support pretty much covered it for me.
I really like Clarion for the following reason. It is a data-centric RAD tool, that uses the best features of many languages. If you are going to build database oriented applications, then Clarion is really a must have, or at least a must look. If you want to build Windows utility programs and such, then use a conventional language like Delphi, VB or C++.
My main complaint with Clarion4 is that they should have made the object pallette and property editor more like those available in VB and Delphi. This would help encourage people to make the switch, if the environment was at least a little bit similar.
With Clarion you can build fast, compiled applications that can be leveraged across 3 platforms, 16bit, 32bit, and the internet, with ease. Use of sophisticated COBOLese type record structures really lend it towards business applications, unlike C, or VB. The new object oriented extensions and templates allow you to create truly versatile code, and if you are developing an application system then you will really appreciate how easy it is to inherit your basic format and keep a consistent look and feel across functions.
Clarion version 4
150 East Sample Rd.
Pompano Beach, FL 33064
Price for Clarion4 is $499, upgrade is $149. Support is available easily on the Internet or CompuServe. Product includes a 4 manuals.