As a generation of Natural developers eyes retirement, Software AG has constructed a new IDE that it hopes will attract Java developers to the 4GL programming language to maintain and update existing applications.

NaturalONE, announced in March, is an Eclipse-based development environment for the Natural language. Natural is nearly 35 years old and was developed by Software AG to compete with COBOL.

“Natural was one of the most successful 4GLs,” said Gartner Research vice president Jim Duggan. It maintains a large presence in Europe, representing the largest install base after COBOL, and is found in government systems in North America, he said.

Software AG migrated its Natural tooling to Eclipse in an effort to make the language coexist better with Java, and to draw in new developers, said Bruce Beaman, director of product marketing for Software AG’s Enterprise Transaction Systems product line.

Beaman acknowledged that there has been attrition among programmers, although Natural remains popular. Using Eclipse helps Java developers participate in code maintenance for Natural applications, he explained. “They only need to pick up Natural’s syntax, which is not hard.”

It also consolidates the company’s Natural development products into a single offering. Those include Natural for AJAX, Natural Business Services, and Natural for Eclipse.

NaturalONE features integrated application life-cycle management capabilities, and it supports relational database management systems, including Adabas, IBM DB2 and Oracle.

Customers are required to purchase a Natural runtime, Beaman said. Those who have licensed runtimes for the aforementioned products can convert to the NaturalONE runtime. NaturalONE costs US$3,000 per user seat, but if it’s purchased before Dec. 31, 2010, it will cost half that.

The immediate benefit of the IDE is that NaturalONE will make it easier for users to exploit the extensions and “more modern patterns and structures” in Natural and in Software AG’s other products, said Duggan.

“The other aspect here is that [Software AG] hopes to draw in those development teams that might be seeking something easier and more productive than Java. This is the same as the hope that IBM puts forward for EGL [Enterprise Generation Language],” Duggan added. EGL is a business-oriented language that was designed by IBM.

However, Gartner does not see any evidence that Natural is attracting many Java or .NET developers, Duggan said. NaturalONE is a substantial tool investment that is a “cash cow” for Software AG, he added.

“[NaturalONE] seems enough for the purpose of slowing moves away from Natural and its community, but not enough to ignite a renaissance.”