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Firms consider plan for interoperable Java tools

A number of Java tools providers, including Sun and BEA, are talking about creating a common way to share plug-ins among their different tools.

Some Java software providers are mulling an effort to improve interoperability among competing Java development tools.

A number of Java companies have held discussions on a potential initiative to make it possible for Java engineers to use the same add-on tools with programming applications from different Java providers, according to representatives from Sun Microsystems and BEA Systems. The plan, however, has not yet gained the endorsement of all of the largest Java providers, including IBM.

A system of interoperability would give Java programmers the flexibility to use add-on utilities with different tools environments, or integrated development environments (IDEs). Leading Java tools companies have each tried to encourage independent software providers to build plug-ins for their respective products. But a standardized system for plug-in interoperability does not yet exist.

"The issues we are most concerned about are extensibility and plug-in compatibility in Java tools to make it easy to develop value-added tools and slot them in, so people can mix and match," said Scott Dietzen, chief technology office at BEA.

Dietzen said Java tools providers have not yet reached consensus on how to meet the goal of improved tool interoperability. A Sun representative said details regarding the process and organization of an industrywide tools interoperability effort outside of the existing Java standardization process are still being discussed.

IBM currently has no involvement in the new Java tools effort and has not yet decided to join, said Rod Smith, vice president of emerging technologies at IBM's software group.

Big Blue is already heavily invested in another Java tools interoperability program called Eclipse, an open-source effort that IBM started two years ago. The Eclipse project has created a "framework" in which several development tools can operate. For example, the Eclipse foundation allows a Java programmer to combine a coding tool with a source code management system from different providers.

Eclipse Chairman Skip McGaughey said he has spoken to executives from Oracle and SAP about an effort to gather technical requirements for Java tool integration before technical changes are proposed in the , the main Java standardization organization. But Eclipse has not yet decided to pursue any tools interoperability effort outside of its own, McGaughey said.

Plans to create a standardized way to plug third-party utilities into Java tools are already under way. Earlier this year, Oracle spearheaded an effort called Java Specification Request (JSR) 198.

Ted Farrell, who is part of the JSR 198 expert group, said Oracle often has discussions with other Java companies to improve tools interoperability through the Java Community Process. But "there's not a formal thing that's been created," he said.

Farrell also noted that the technical approach of JSR 198, which reflects Oracle's beliefs, differs from that of Eclipse. Rather than advocate one single foundation that third-party tools can connect to, the JSR 198 is proposing a plug-in system that would allow Java programmers to choose between different frameworks from tools companies such as BEA, Borland Software, IBM and Oracle.

"Eclipse wants to be the framework for all tools. Oracle disagrees with that," said Farrell, who is Oracle's chief architect and director of strategy for the company's tools division. "There should be a common API (application programming interface) so that people can plug into all frameworks easily."

A draft for the JSR 198 specification is due next year, with initial products using the tools interoperability standard expected at the end of 2004.