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Issue No. 04 - July/August (2005 vol. 22)
ISSN: 0740-7459
pp: 108-112
Beware the March of This IDE: Eclipse Is Overshadowing Other Tool Technologies
The open source Eclipse Project is rapidly obtaining majority market share among development platforms, according to analysts' surveys as well as adoption rates by major vendors. The project, originally conceived in the late 1990s by a small group of IBM engineers as a way to standardize development platforms across the company, now includes 97 members. It has expanded well beyond its original core technology of a Java integrated development environment (IDE) to include approved projects or proposals for data tool development, embedded-device tool development, and rich-client application development, among others. (For more on Eclipse and related projects, see the " Related URLs" sidebar.)
Solid growth
According to industry surveys, well over half the developers contacted prefer Eclipse as their primary Java IDE. Two Evans Data reports from 2004 showed rapid adoption of Eclipse. From February 2003 to February 2004, Eclipse use among Linux developers grew by 80 percent, and Eclipse became the operating system's most-used IDE. A follow-up Evans survey of over 400 Java developers in May 2004 concluded that Eclipse was the only one of the top three Java IDEs gaining market share.
The trend has continued in 2005. A survey of 515 attendees at the March 2005 Java Symposium revealed that 53 percent of Java developers preferred Eclipse as their primary IDE. The next most popular IDE, JetBrains' IntelliJ IDEA, received 19 percent of the vote. The Eclipse Foundation, which oversees the Eclipse Project, estimates that Eclipse has gained a huge share of the tools platform market—at least 75 percent—for the most advanced aspects of its technology, such as corporate Java development.
The software industry has recognized Eclipse's grassroots popularity by lending significant corporate resources to it. In late February and early March 2005, industry heavyweights BEA, Borland, Computer Associates, Wind River, and Sybase agreed to participate as strategic developers. Vendors participating at that level must shoulder annual dues of US$250,000 and commit at least eight developers to leading an Eclipse project.
Mike Milinkovich, the year-old Eclipse Foundation's executive director, says these recent statistics and announcements should make it clear that Eclipse has completely shed its IBM cocoon and is fully independent.
"It's kind of like riding a tiger," Milinkovich says. "The growth curve has been very much like a hockey stick at the strategic level."
Lee Nackman, vice president of product development at IBM's Rational Software, is one of the pioneers behind Eclipse. He notes that while 2005 might mark the unofficial coronation on the corporate level, developers were swarming to it long before.
"The thing that really drove it home for me was when we released version 2.0," Nackman says. "It was released on a Friday late in the day, and the servers were overwhelmed, which told me there were tons of people who were eagerly watching and waiting."
Extensibility + practicality == popularity
The Eclipse platform's core of functionality is the ability to accommodate tools developed as plug-in modules. Although Eclipse is written in Java, it supports any language. Typically, a developer can write a given tool as a separate plug-in that operates on files in the platform's workspace.
The platform's workbench displays the plug-in's tool-specific user interface (see the figure). Additionally, each plug-in may be extended by other plug-ins. These additional plug-ins may be either open source or proprietary tools for which developers pay a licensing fee.

The Eclipse platform JFace and SWT (Standard Widget Toolkit) are the Eclipse GUI components.

Vendors see the two-sided "value add" capability Eclipse brings to the industry. They don't have to rewrite fundamental development platform code, yet Eclipse is compatible with proprietary plug-ins with which they try to distinguish themselves from competitors. While unable to reveal specific amounts, IBM's Nackman claims the company has saved "many millions of dollars" by adopting Eclipse.
Tim Wagner, senior manager of open source compiler and IDE tools at BEA, says, "Probably half of the investment we were making in Workshop [BEA's own extensible Java development environment] was what I would call infrastructure. It was redundant with things we could simply take for granted with Eclipse. When we look at the ubiquity of the platform, if we get even a 5 to 10 percent boost in penetration, it will pay for our strategic developer investment in Eclipse."
One of the newest top-level Eclipse projects is the device software development project, proposed by Wind River. Rob McCammon, director of product management for the Wind River Development Suite, says the need for Eclipse in the embedded and device software market might be even more pronounced than that for enterprise tool design.
"In the device software space, historically there have been many companies providing development tool capabilities in a proprietary way," McCammon says. The reason, he says, is that the device market is fragmented across many technologies. While the desktop and server environments are fairly standard, the device landscape includes everything from digital cameras to antilock brake systems to giant racks of telecommunications equipment. A successful Eclipse device tool platform, according to McCammon, will let vendors concentrate on their own contributions. The Eclipse-supplied building blocks will furnish the components that don't need to differ from one project to the next.
The device project is just one of 15 proposals that Eclipse is investigating; six top-level projects, including the Eclipse parent project, are under way. In addition to tools projects, Eclipse features a Rich Client Platform for application development, available since June 2004. IBM's Workplace Client Technology, which lets enterprise end users access editing tools via a client-server architecture, is written on the RCP.
Both Nackman and Milinkovich say one of the organization's greatest challenges will be to reconcile the need to nurture the rapid growth of various Eclipse projects with the need to release new technology at reasonable intervals.
"On one hand you want to let all the flowers bloom," Nackman says. "On the other hand, you could have overlap, duplication, and conflict."
According to Nackman, such duplication has already happened. At EclipseCon 2005, the organization's annual conference, a new Sybase-led data tools project was announced. Nackman says some of the technology proposed for this project already existed in the Eclipse Web tools project. Those two projects are now coordinating, and some Web tools technology will be moved to the data tools project so that it needs to be developed only once, says Nackman. He concedes that rapid growth might lead to other such redundant code, which must be watched for constantly.
A similar challenge, Nackman says, will be balancing overall platform stability and growth. As more and more people become dependent on Eclipse, pressure will increase for slowing down the rate of change to the platform.
"We have to balance between allowing the technology to evolve at its natural pace without causing breakage and instability. That will be a problem," says Nackman.
(For more opinions on Eclipse's growth and scalability, see the " What Developers Say" sidebar.)
Well-defined process, unique incubation model
To help coordinate development, the Eclipse Foundation recently hired veteran developer Bjorn Freeman-Benson as technical director to coordinate each project's progress. In addition, Milinkovich says, just because Eclipse is open source, it shouldn't be construed as an anything-goes environment. In fact, a Project Management Committee manages Eclipse's development. In addition, councils for requirements, planning, and architecture oversee their respective areas, make progress reports to the PMC, and ensure timely release of new technology.
BEA's Wagner, a member of the planning and architecture councils, says the organization must remain cognizant of its external image and internal reality. "Facing out to customers, I think the challenge is to make Eclipse the easy, integrated, 'feels like it came from a single vendor' solution we all want it to be," he says. "Inside Eclipse, it's a slightly different question. It's how can we manage what is becoming a very large, diverse software artifact built by people all over the globe and keep it orderly and under control?"
The consensus holds that the key element behind Eclipse's recent rapid growth has been the acceptance of the Eclipse Foundation as an entity entirely separate from IBM control. Although IBM had decided to make Eclipse open source and ran it as a consortium from late 2001 until the foundation was announced, Nackman says even the loose corporate ties were enough to keep other vendors on the sidelines.
Michael Azoff, an industry analyst with the UK-based Butler Group, says the new Eclipse organizational structure reminds him of the collaborative underpinnings common in basic academic and scientific research. Basic research in those communities, he says, is pooled, and intellectual property is culled from that common base. Likewise, with the Eclipse Project and Eclipse Foundation, vendors can mutually benefit from having basic tools to build other tools. They can then build on that to provide premium products that have a license fee.
Yet, while the industry needed to wait for IBM to fully release Eclipse into the community for it to reach its full potential, that potential might have been delayed for years or perhaps never been realized, if IBM had employed the traditional open source development model. Instead, IBM released a platform that was already capable of turning heads because it had been coded by a small group with a clear mission from Day One.
"We took technology that we started to develop in a conventional way and used that to seed an open source project that has become a traditional open source project, if there is such a thing," Nackman says. "There was enough there to attract interest and build excitement. This mixture of the open source way of doing things and commercial vendors is really quite neat."
So what's next?
With Eclipse's popularity booming, strategists, developers, and analysts are exploring and debating its place in the larger development ecosystem. Among major software vendors, just two, Sun Microsystems and Microsoft, have remained aloof from Eclipse—but Microsoft has sent representatives to both EclipseCon annual conferences.
"They sent six people to EclipseCon this year and sent at least that many people to the first conference in 2004," Milinkovich says. "We haven't had any conversations about them joining Eclipse, but I think there are some areas where it would be good for them, as well as for us, to cooperate." Two areas ripe for collaboration, he says, include the whole area of Web Services interoperability, as well as an Eclipse project dealing with C# and .Net tools.
Unofficial Microsoft/Eclipse projects are already under way. Melbourne, Australia-based developer Joe Sango and several of his colleagues are beginning the VSTSEclipse project. Its goal is to create a suite of Eclipse plug-ins with which developers can leverage the source control and work item features in Microsoft's new Visual Studio 2005 Team System, which was released in beta in April 2005. The Team System lets multiple programmers working on a single project coordinate their source code contributions and find bugs. Sango hopes their project will allow such coordination in projects containing code written in both .Net and alternative formats.
It looks far less likely that Sun will meld its NetBeans Java development technology with Eclipse (Sun didn't respond to several requests for comments). Sun sent Eclipse an open letter upon the establishment of the Eclipse Foundation, pledging mutual support but not offering to join the organization. However, Bill Weinberg, open source architecture specialist for the Open Source Development Labs, says cross-pollination of Sun and Eclipse technology is a given whether Sun joins the open source project or not. Because Solaris and Sun's Java tools are so ubiquitous, Weinberg contends that Eclipse will eventually show up in their environment.
Despite industry gossip, Nackman says the name Eclipse has nothing to do with one-upping Sun on a Java platform. Instead, he says IBM's Eclipse team was searching for a name that began with a long "e" sound to go with IBM's "e-business" ad campaigns. If the team wanted to eclipse any technology, he says, it was Microsoft's Visual Studio .Net.
Among dedicated Java IDE vendors, JetBrains executives say they have no plans to join Eclipse. "In coding productivity features and as a professional code-oriented developer tool, IDEA is the only product that stands in competition with Eclipse," the company said in a written statement. "All the other companies threw their weight behind Eclipse to try and improve their offerings to effectively compete with Eclipse and IDEA."
JetBrains recently began its own open source initiative, giving free licenses for IDEA to any qualified noncommercial open source project. By late May 2005, developers in 150 projects, including 60 percent of Apache Software Foundation Java development projects, had signed up for the program.
JetBrains is also confident the features that attract developers to the company's technology will continue to provide a loyal customer base.
Even Eclipse executive director Milinkovich admits IntelliJ is a formidable piece of technology.
"With IntelliJ, they clearly have a great product. I wish there was a way for them to come work at Eclipse. Everything I've ever read or seen from those guys tells me they're one smart bunch of people."
However, Milinkovich also says the original Eclipse platform's popularity places pressure on the organization to look past its success as an IDE platform and its competition in that space.
"When I think of how would I measure my success a couple years from now, I'd like to see some additional projects that are as successful in their space as the Eclipse Platform Project has been in the Java IDE space. How you go about redoing that magic is the real challenge, I think."
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