New age dawns at Eclipse

As the open-source tools initiative prepares to gain independence from founder IBM, competitors and Java programmers are closely watching its future technical direction.

Martin LaMonica
Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
6 min read
Eclipse, an increasingly influential open-source development tools project, will kick off its first programmer conference next week amid strong industry momentum and lingering questions regarding its future direction.

The organization is expected to formally announce its independence from founder IBM at the EclipseCon conference next week, a move that will clear the way for a group of technology providers, and IBM rivals, to join the Eclipse board and help decide its direction.


What's new:
Eclipse, an open-source development tools project, will announce its independence from founder IBM next week at its first programmer conference.

Bottom line:
The move could clear the way for other technology providers, including IBM rivals such as Sun, to influence the direction of Java software in the industry.

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It's a major turning point for Eclipse that could greatly expand its clout. "IBM will lose a whole lot of power that they had in the old organization," said David Orme, the leader of an Eclipse project and the chief architect at tools company Advanced Systems Concepts. "(Eclipse) was always intended to become something bigger than IBM. For this to happen, IBM had to give up control."

Eclipse was founded in November 2001 with a $40 million donation from IBM. Since then, the group has grown to about 50 members and given rise to a popular Java development tool platform--also known as Eclipse--that allows developers to mix and match different types of tools in a single programming application. Before software like Eclipse became prevalent, it was difficult, if not impossible, for many Java tools to work together.

But the industry perception that IBM dominated the setting of Eclipse's agenda--mostly using it to push sales of its own Java software--has kept Java inventor Sun Microsystems from joining the organization.

Big Blue executives have dismissed the suggestion that the name Eclipse was chosen as a not-so-subtle allusion to overcoming rival Sun. Sun requested a name change in its failed attempt to join the organization. "Some companies...opposed to IBM just could not support Eclipse because of the IBM connection," said James Governor, an analyst at RedMonk.

Now, as Eclipse assumes independent status, many makers of development tools will be closely watching the project and may join the effort, since it has become influential in setting industry direction on many Java-related development issues.

"As Eclipse splits out from IBM, it helps from a partnership perspective," said Thomas Murphy, an analyst at research firm Meta Group. "The question is can they really build on the community?"

Gaining developer interest is a critical goal for Java software providers, because it helps generate sales of pricier software to run Java applications and provides a bulwark against Microsoft's competing tools and Windows-based software.

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Large companies committed to Java, such as SAP, SAS Institute and Sybase, are adopting Eclipse for their internal development, as are many smaller companies that create add-ons designed to plug into the tool framework. Novell last week joined Eclipse, and is committed to using the Eclipse integrated development environment, or IDE.

The composition of the group's new board of directors--which could be named by next week--will also be closely watched, because the board can dictate how the Eclipse software evolves beyond its roots as an IBM-founded project.

Under its new bylaws, Eclipse will have different membership levels, including both commercial and free participation for individuals and other open-source projects. The board will be made up of a relatively small number of "strategic contributors" willing to invest significant resources to Eclipse--as high as $250,000 and eight programmers, according to Skip McGaughey, the chairman of Eclipse.

An important technical question is whether the Eclipse software will remain fairly simple--a quality much favored by developers--or begin to add complexity as more companies get involved in its design, said Meta Group's Murphy. "Does (the software base) stay basic, or will it, because all these other people are driving it, start to bloat?" he said.

Keeping a close watch
Java developers aren't the only ones keeping tabs on Eclipse's transformation.

Sun, which rebuffed an invitation to join Eclipse last month, reopened internal discussions about joining the organization over the past several weeks, according to the Santa Clara, Calif. company. While it's still unclear whether Sun will join, the software and hardware maker is closely monitoring which other companies take Eclipse board seats and is weighing its options, according to a Sun representative.

The rapid escalation of Eclipse over the past two years has provided stiff competition to Sun's own NetBeans open-source Java development tools initiative. The NetBeans and Eclipse software have significant technical differences, notably the method for creating user interfaces for various operating systems and the system for incorporating add-on components into the programming tools.

Executives at Sun have also complained of IBM's influence within Eclipse. The Eclipse software underlies IBM's entire tool strategy.

Sun, meanwhile, is trying to reinvigorate the NetBeans effort, which forms the basis for its own commercial development tools. Other tools companies, such as Borland and BEA Systems, are also largely keeping their distance from Eclipse to concentrate on their own tool strategies.

Although many industry observers and developers believe a single system for tying together Java development tools would benefit the Java camp in its ongoing market share battle with Microsoft, some think multiple Java tools platforms can coexist.

"To effectively compete with Microsoft and promote Windows and .Net alternatives, there need to be strong offerings (from Java tool makers). Eclipse and NetBeans are two strong offerings," said Tom Rhinelander, an analyst at research company New Rowley Group.

Last month, several Java software companies formed the Java Tools Community (JTC), an organization to promote tools and tool interoperability in the Java standards process. Those Java standards should be adopted by Eclipse and help ease some of the technical differences between tools, according to JTC and Eclipse members.

While Java providers jockey among themselves for greater control over the direction of tools, Eclipse open-source programmers are forging ahead with enhancements to the Eclipse software, which are expected to be discussed next week at the EclipseCon conference in Anaheim, Calif. Eclipse 3.0, a new version of the base software, is slated for release in June and is expected to improve the Eclipse development environment to make it easier to customize and simpler to learn.

The planned update will also seek to make the Eclipse software more appropriate for "rich client" applications, or applications that can draw on the processing power of PCs for graphics or data aggregation.

With the enhancements, developers will be able to build and use rich client applications that draw on the look and feel of different operating systems. The Eclipse software will act as a container for different plug-ins, much like a Web browser, according to Eclipse.

Deciding how to move forward with the rich-client application platform work at Eclipse will be one of the most important decisions for the new board to make, said RedMonk's Governor. That's because the rich client capabilities of the Eclipse software have the potential to challenge Microsoft's Windows lock on desktop software.

"An application based on Eclipse might have the manageability of a browser-based application but have enough richness and customer experience so that (it) is better than a Web front-end," Governor said.

Also next week, keynote speaker Grady Booch, an IBM fellow and a software development guru, plans to outline his vision for how programming will evolve into a more collaborative process, so that far-flung developers can more easily work together on software projects.

Booch is expected to take a longer view on software development's future in his keynote talk. Booch, a founder of Rational Software, IBM's tools division, said that existing collaborative tools, such as instant messaging or online meeting software, will need to merge with development tools for programmers to be more productive.

"For the most part, what separates us (from our goal) is the human problem," Booch told CNET News.com. "What can I provide in my technology to increase the bandwidth and reduce the noise in the communication in my disparate development groups?"