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The significance of enterprise contributions to Eclipse

Eclipse has tapped into an important new model for software development. Is there a lesson here for commercial open-source companies?

I received an interesting email today from the Eclipse Foundation, interesting because it cut against an experience I had at work, and against Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst's evangelism to convince more enterprises to contribute to open-source software projects.

I'm aware of a number of mission-critical applications happily running on open-source software, unpaid and unsupported. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how I feel about my quarterly numbers at any given moment :-), my own company's code is included in this observation. In each case, the enterprise contributes nothing back to the respective open-source communities.

Eclipse, however, is having a different experience:

Consumers of technology -- not just vendors -- are now getting involved in Eclipse. For example, Deutsche Post contributed code to start the Eclipse Swordfish project (SOA runtime), Boeing contributed its homegrown software to start the Open Systems Engineering project, and VA Hospital and Kaiser Permanente are driving the Open Healthcare Framework.

This is fantastic. Such contributions still represent a tiny sliver of overall Eclipse contributions, but it's a start. IBM kicked off Eclipse six years ago with a large code drop, and remains one of its biggest backers. The Eclipse Foundation now has more than 185 members. Hopefully, in the not too distant future we'll see companies like Citigroup joining the Eclipse Foundation and contributing code there.

Eclipse works because it doesn't need much in the way of cash to operate. Some cash is critical to fund its operations, but code is the more important currency for Eclipse. As I've written before, does Eclipse point to the future of open-source development? Is there a lesson in this for commercial open-source vendors, as Kris Buytaert suggests?