Eclipse marks five years of expansion

If you'd like to study how open-source development has transformed the software industry, look no further than Eclipse, which celebrates it fifth anniversary on Monday.

Founded by IBM in 2001 as an open-source project, the now-independent Eclipse Foundation has built its market clout by attracting many software vendors to collaborate. Its development software is popular with end customers as well: Eclipse claims 2.25 million users worldwide.

The Eclipse software is a "framework" for running development-related software that allows people to mix and match plug-in programs in a single application.

Its projects cover a wide range, from storage to scripting languages, but its most high-profile impact has come in Java development.

With the notable exception of Sun Microsystems, which is committed to its NetBeans Java development platform, the largest technology companies have bet, at least in part, on Eclipse, from BEA Systems to Nokia.

When longtime tools supplier Borland announced that it would exit the development tools business to focus on more sophisticated applications, many people said the move underscores how the basic IDE (integrated development environment) market has been "commoditized" by open source.

Eclipse has also become influential in establishing industry standards. In the case of Java, many vendors chose to participate in Eclipse rather than the Java Community Process (JCP)--the official Java standards organization--because it is faster.

Eclipse has a measure of independence from existing processes. For example, Eclipse executive director Mike Milinkovich recently wrote how "weird" a Java standards proposal (Java Specification Request 277) is. He said it recreates what another group of vendors is already trying to achieve at the JCP--a regular occurrence in standards bodies populated by competing vendors.

Another significant practice that Eclipse has helped codify is professional involvement in open source.

The popular image of Linux and other open-source projects visible to the general public is an army of unpaid volunteers cranking out code late at night and on weekends.

Not so at Eclipse, where contributors are gainfully employed at software vendors with a stake in the adoption of Eclipse.

And what a benefit Eclipse has brought to founder IBM. Companies like IBM are eager to talk about the benefits of a services-oriented architecture (SOA) because it allows business customers to reuse code.

But Eclipse, which started out as a way to unify IBM's disparate tooling environments, is now the foundation for its Rational products and seemingly anything else IBM can think of, from Tivoli management to AJAX development.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has a similar system to Eclipse with its flagship development tool, Visual Studio, which can run various languages and support plug-in programs. For that reason, the "ecosystem" with the most participation over the long run will help determine adoption by end users.

Perhaps the most intriguing development to watch at Eclipse is around its Rich Client Platform, which is already adopted by IBM with its Workplace initiative. With the software, developers can write client-side applications that run the same on multiple operating systems.

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