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Eclipse readies 'rich client' software

The open-source software offers developers an alternative to Windows for delivering desktop applications.

The Eclipse open-source software foundation next week plans to release software that will offer developers an alternative to Windows for delivering desktop applications.

Eclipse 3.0, which is freely available software aimed at Java programmers, includes tools for building and running so-called rich-client applications, which have more sophisticated graphics capabilities than standard Web browser-based applications.

The Eclipse software, which was originally developed by IBM, also provides a single "framework" that different development tools can plug into.

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Using Eclipse, a programmer can combine several tools--such as those for testing, managing source code and modeling--all within a single application.

IBM spun off Eclipse in February. The group, now an independent open-source foundation, named an executive director, Mike Milinkovich, in May. The popularity of the Eclipse software has grown rapidly, catching on with independent software providers who write Eclipse plug-ins and with independent Java programmers.

The Eclipse 3.0 update includes enhancements to improve developer productivity and changes to accommodate two different methods for building user interfaces with Java. Tools written to conform with the user interface "widget" toolkit, called Swing, can plug into the Eclipse software, which uses the SWT (standards widget toolkit), Milinkovich said.

The new features are aimed squarely at programmers, but the implications of the rich-client capabilities in the Eclipse software have broader implications, according to analysts. Eclipse is designed to let businesses build or acquire graphics-rich applications that run on different operating systems.

Having more desktop application choices could ultimately pose a threat to Microsoft's dominance in desktop applications, said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk.

"Eclipse is a central point of control, presentation and (application) delivery that abstracts out some of the operating-system intricacies...and makes the longer-term question of the operating system less important," O'Grady said.

IBM recently announced a Workplace initiative that uses the Eclipse client software to run different desktop productivity applications, such as a spreadsheet and messaging, on multiple operating systems, such as Linux, Windows and Macintosh. If other independent software vendors start to use the Eclipse client "platform," corporate customers will have greater flexibility in choosing their desktop operating system, O'Grady said.

So far, few application providers have written their software to work with the Eclipse client, though.

Typically, big companies that want to deploy an application to run on multiple desktop operating systems will use Web portal software, which delivers back-end information through a Web browser. Those Web front ends have their limitations, though.

"The Web is archaic--it's 10 years old. The needs of people are not being met by mere HTML applications," said Java programmer Rick Ross, founder of Javalobby, a Java developer community. "(Eclipse) is saying that the software is bigger than just an IDE (integrated development environment)."

The Eclipse foundation houses a number of development-related open-source initiatives not related to Java, including projects built around the C and C++ programming languages. Another Eclipse initiative for managing the different phases of the application-development process called Hyades will release an update in tandem with Eclipse 3.0.