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Eclipse: The Last IDE You'll Ever Need?

Judging by its initial popularity with developers and its ongoing focus on extensibility, Eclipse may indeed be the last IDE. But where does that leave the tools vendors? Will innovation or decimation follow from the triumph of Eclipse?


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urlingame, Calif.—The support that Eclipse has gained from tools vendors such as BEA and Borland indicates how established the integrated development environment (IDE) has become since IBM developed and then spun-off the project more than a year ago. During the EclipseCon 2005 conference here last week, all were ready to sing the praises of Eclipse and anoint it as an application development phenomenon. What's been the secret sauce for Eclipse's success? The formula includes an open source foundation, Agile development-based release cycles, and vendor and language neutrality. All together, the result is an open-source development environment, application framework, and integration platform in one.

The Right Tool at the Right Time
During his presentation, How Eclipse Changes the Game, Forrester Research Vice President Carl Zetie, discussed the climate in which Eclipse has emerged and the impact it has made on the application development market. The ever-widening adoption of the open source technologies Linux, Apache, and MySQL laid the groundwork for commoditized software platforms. Meanwhile, software organizations are striving for simpler application development. What used to be a clear-cut choice between adopting a single vendor's entire integrated product suite or implementing best-of-breed custom integration has become an opportunity to have both with Eclipse's focus on infrastructure instead of features and its ability to fit any scale of organization.

"Maybe Microsoft can ignore Eclipse. I don't know if anybody else can."—Forrester Research Vice President Carl Zetie



The convergence of these factors has been fertile soil for Eclipse's growth. According to Zeite's survey of nearly 400 technology executives, 65 percent of their organizations use Eclipse to some extent. Zeite explained that that number might even be conservative because many developers in large organizations download and use Eclipse without telling their CTOs who've spent money on licenses for a software vendor's IDEs. "You may be in an Eclipse shop and not even know it," said Zeite

The openness of Eclipse is also a draw. "You don't need anybody's permission to write your own IDEs," said Zeite, but he also acknowledged that managing the number of plug-ins and assuring their quality is very challenging.

According to Zeite, Eclipse has in fact created a new type of developer: the simplifier. Rather than decide whether the glass is half full or half empty, the simplifier asks, "why do you have twice as much glass as you need?"

"Maybe Microsoft can ignore Eclipse," said Zeite. "I don't know if anybody else can."

The Eclipse Process: Agile, Predictable
Eclipse Project Management Committee members Erich Gamma and John Wiegand discussed how Eclipse releases keep to a regular schedule during their presentation, The Eclipse Way: Processes That Adapt. Eclipse produces a second-quarter release every year (12-16 months) with maintenance releases in between. "We produce on time, in a predictable manner," said Wiegand.

One key to maintaining that schedule has been applying Agile development principles to the process, such as an integrated build process. The Eclipse committee breaks down its release cycles into milestones, which currently are every six weeks. During the cycles, it is always collecting feedback from participants and dynamically implementing those suggestions that can improve the process. The open nature also keeps them honest. "We cannot cheat," said Gamma. "It's developed in a glass house; everyone can see."

What Becomes of the Tools Market?
Where does Eclipse's success leave the tools market? Since Borland, IBM, and BEA have all thrown their support behind Eclipse, they don't seem too worried about losing business. Borland's Vice President of Developer Relations David Intersimone, who has witnessed various software technology epochs during the past 15 years, from productivity through performance to collaboration, said, "Eclipse may be the end of the constant retooling that many of us have gone through. As each epoch change came, we've rewritten debuggers, compilers, etc."

"Eclipse may be the end of the constant retooling that many of us have gone through."—David Intersimone, VP, Developer Relations, Borland

He believes Eclipse is a framework that will last for a long time and continue to meet the needs of development teams. His colleague and fellow presenter for Death of the IDE, Long Live the IDE!, Borland CTO Patrick Kerpan credits Eclipse for keeping its focus on foundation capabilities and not on products, which leaves it up to individual developers to choose—or write—the plug-ins that best meet their needs. That type of extensibility is why Kerpan said, "Eclipse can be a framework that can live across the coming software engineering epochs."

"Every time we've crossed one of these epochs, we've had to invest R&D dollars to keep up with features and weren't able to address the problems that were right in front of us, Kerpan went on to say. "Eclipse creates an opportunity for vendors to stop competing on low-value, multi-implemented, ever-commoditized features."

He added, "To the extent that people say 'the IDE is commoditized and Eclipse proves that,' we believe it will lead to a renaissance in development innovation."

More Adoption, More Problems?
In his keynote titled The Eclipse Phenomenon on the conference's final day, IBM Rational Software CTO Lee Nackman indicated that Eclipse's growth has brought challenges for its management. As more vendors and more developers come into the Eclipse ecosystem, he posited, "How do we keep the conceptual integrity that made Eclipse so successful in the first place, without killing off the innovation and growth?"

"Will Eclipse provide so much functionality for free that the tools market will disappear?"—IBM Rational Software CTO Lee Nackman

It's hard to grow "in a way that keeps the things that got you going in the first place," he said. With the option to write plug-ins open to everyone, Eclipse must maintain a balance not only between growth and stability but also between innovation and overlap.

Along with these technological challenges, Eclipse must also consider the business aspects of its open source foundation. "There's got to be some way the vendors can make a profit around the Eclipse ecosystem," Nackerman said. "Will Eclipse provide so much functionality for free that the tools market will disappear?"

Kerpan and Intersimone of Borland certainly didn't think so, and neither does Nackerman. Eclipse simply raises the bar for tools vendors to compete. "The pressure is on tools vendors to innovate on top of Eclipse, which is good for customers," said Nackerman.



   
Glen Kunene is the Managing Editor for DevX.
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