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Eclipse lights up Java crowd

The open-source Eclipse project steps out of IBM's shadow to become the center of Java tools innovation.

A little more than a year ago, detractors painted the Eclipse open-source project as nothing more than a ploy by IBM to sell its own software. Today, by most accounts, it's the center of innovation in the Java tools industry.

On Monday, a sold-out EclipseCon conference will open and, unlike last year's inaugural meeting, IBM technical gurus will not be the center of attention.

Instead, the open-source foundation will fete its newest board members--IBM rivals BEA Systems, Sybase and Borland International--and detail the expanding list of development-related projects under Eclipse's purview.

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What's new:
With the EclipseCon conference set to start this week, the Eclipse open-source foundation has gained new board members BEA, Borland and Sybase.

Bottom line:
Once considered a Trojan horse to sell IBM software, the Eclipse organization has become the leading source of innovation in the Java tools industry.

More stories on the Eclipse Foundation

"Eclipse is definitely the dominant Java tools platform," said Thomas Murphy, an analyst at the Meta Group. "And increasingly, the Eclipse organization will be pushing this message of a general-purpose platform."

IBM founded the Eclipse consortium in November 2001 with $40 million in seed money and a substantial donation in code. Today, the group has 91 members, including most of the largest software companies. And it produces what is now the most popular Java development tool, according to Evans Data.

Eclipse became an independent nonprofit foundation, spun off from IBM, one year ago. That independence helped fuel its momentum, as vendors such as BEA, which once stayed clear of Eclipse, began jumping on board.

In effect, Eclipse has managed to unify the great majority of Java providers--with the notable exception of Sun Microsystems, and limited participation from Oracle--something that years of industrywide standardization efforts never did.

"It's over," said Bob Bickel, vice president of corporate strategy at open-source Java company JBoss, referring to competition in the Java tools industry.

"Eclipse has just reached that tipping-point critical mass. There's the economic interest among all the vendors to drop their costs of creating new toolsets," he said.

Open source in suits' clothing
Having a common development-tool technology is vital in Java vendors' shared fight against Microsoft. Winning over developers has been a long-standing battle between the two camps, because programmers can influence the choice of pricier, back-end software for running business applications.

The Eclipse software in some ways mimics what Microsoft has with its flagship development product, Visual Studio.

The Eclipse Platform, as it's called, lets a programmer use several different tools from the same application. From the same front end, someone can combine tools for writing code with "plug-ins" for modeling databases or testing applications. IBM is using the Eclipse software to provide a common foundation for its suite of development tools, giving a disparate product set a common user interface as well as a mechanism to share information.

Microsoft has a similar "platform" approach, in that third parties can write add-ons for Visual Studio and developers can write code in many different languages.

Perhaps the most glaring difference between the Eclipse approach and Microsoft's is that the Eclipse software is open source, which means anyone can download and modify the code. But the Eclipse Foundation is somewhat unique in its structure, reflecting how corporations are increasingly active in open-source projects.

Hardly a grassroots collaborative effort willing to take code donations from volunteers around the world, Eclipse is directed by vendors. Employees from independent software vendors, or ISVs, hold nearly all the board positions and make up the majority of the contributors.

That vendor membership is by design, said Mike Milinkovich, the executive director of Eclipse. Eclipse's software has developed rapidly because of such membership, coupled with the open-source development model, he said. That's as opposed to a model that relies on industry consortia such as standards organizations.

"A lot of innovation is happening in open source," said Milinkovich, who said standards should come after new software inventions. "I always thought that innovating while doing the standards is a little confusing."

Indeed, the pace of development in Eclipse is one of the reasons BEA joined the organization, said Alfred Chuang, the company's CEO. The Java standards body, called the Java Community Process, "is just not fast enough," Chuang said.

For its part, Sun declined invitations to join Eclipse in 2003. Following its decision, it sent an open letter to Eclipse, urging the group to unify the Java community, rather than serve IBM's purposes.

Sun is competing for Java developer attention through its NetBeans open-source project. It reinvigorated the effort with a major update last year and is basing its own development tools products on the NetBeans software.

But some people think Sun's choice of going with NetBeans doesn't serve the company or the Java industry. Having a single software product for building plug-ins would eliminate the need to do separate add-ons for different tool platforms, said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk.

"From a Java perspective, Sun does look increasingly isolated," said O'Grady, who noted that it appears the majority of software companies are choosing Eclipse over NetBeans. "Sun will have to reconcile the divide sooner or later."

Expanding scope
The Eclipse Foundation, meanwhile, is expanding the scope of its work beyond Java development.

One project, called the Web Tools Platform Project, is expected to release its first version in July of this year, Milinkovich said. BEA will join that group and is expected to make some code contributions.

Another project for integrating testing and performance tools gained the involvement of systems management heavyweight Computer Associates last year. The Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools, or BIRT, product is an open-source toolkit for generating business reports from Java servers.

A "rich client" project lets Java programmers build graphical front-ends for different desktop operating systems. IBM is exploiting the project in its Workplace desktop software push.

Because Eclipse is meant as a general-purpose tooling package, even Microsoft would do well to participate in Eclipse as a way to promote its own development languages, such as C#, Milinkovich said.

"We're waiting for Microsoft to come up with a strategy for dealing with open source in general," he said. "If Microsoft wanted to join Eclipse, we would be thrilled to have them."

Microsoft has no plans to join Eclipse, a company representative said.

Milinkovich points to the new board members as a validation of its independence and its long-term financial viability as an organization. (Board members pay $250,000 a year.)

The Eclipse technology itself has served as a powerful magnet in attracting software companies and developers.

Asked why Eclipse has garnered so much interest in the past two years, Raaj Shinde, Borland's vice president of product strategy and architecture, replied: "I'll give you an engineer's answer. The architecture is incredibly elegant."

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