Eclipse learns how to let go
Swapping IBM for Sun and Microsoft
EclipseCon The Eclipse Foundation looks destined to remain a mistress to Microsoft and Sun Microsystems - while the platform is married to IBM.
The fifth annual EclipseCon this week saw a blockbuster project announcement and an almost shocking partnership.
News that Sun selected the EclipseLink project as the reference implementation for the Java Persistence 2.0 API was a big surprise. It means Sun's open source application server will use EclipseLink and that Sun has become a committer to the project.
Sun remains officially outside Eclipse. But it will not become a member of the Eclipse community, despite the fact that many Java Community Process members "got over it" some time back and joined Eclipse.
Sun will also continue to push its NetBeans framework and integrated development environment in direct competition with Eclipse tooling.
Eclipse Foundation executive director Mike Milinkovich greeted the news of Sun's support and continued absence from Eclipse with characteristic restraint.
"Sure, I think having a press release with quotes in it from Sun is great," he told Reg Dev. "We'd love to have Sun involved with Eclipse. I think Sun tapping into the energy of what's going on in the broader Eclipse community is a good thing."
Again, no commitment to join Eclipse from Microsoft, although the company is evaluating "other" projects in Eclipse.
This is a marriage of convenience rather than a blossoming of love. Microsoft needs Java and open source developers who've been turning away from Windows to pick Linux as a development platform and a runtime environment. Particularly pressing at the moment, is uptake of that well-known resource hog Windows Vista by a community increasingly running Mac on their development machines.
Going for growth
Despite millions of downloads, Eclipse needs growth. With the Eclipse platform second only to Visual Studio in market share, there's two ways it can go from here without Microsoft's support. Plateau or decline.
Growth will come from persuading more Visual Studio developers to run Eclipse with Visual Studio. WPF is a vital first step because it will help finesse the Eclipse experience for millions of developers used to the polish of Visual Studio who will be deterred from using Eclipse by its relative clunkiness and confusion, and by the performance of Eclipse in the Windows Vista's Aero interface.
Milinkovich is sanguine about Eclipse's relationship with Microsoft. "You see these headlines: 'Eclipse taking on .NET and Java'," he said. "Well, no, we're not. This is just the beginning of another open source project. I do like to think of it as Eclipse as having the potential to become the open source competitor to .NET, but these are early days."
That's a significant toning down of the rhetoric from 2006, before Windows Vista, when Milinkovich talked of Eclipse disrupting Microsoft's desktop business ahead of Windows Vista. At the time Eclipse touted backwards compatibility and the ability for ISVs to compile applications across different platforms using the then-new Rich Client Platform. This has since been picked up by IBM's Lotus division, here and here.
Eclipse's desire to grow, and for its potential force in this market, was demonstrated by EclipseCon's other big news: an initiative to develop and promote a community around Equinox, the lightweight OSGi-based runtime, that's now called Eclipse RT.
This is big news, given the trajectory of the Eclipse tooling framework, which flattened the IDE (integrated development environment) market a few years ago like an open-source steamroller.
The big question for Eclipse and possibly the single biggest reason why Microsoft and Sun are so hesitant on committing remains the age-old issue of IBM. Salaried IBM staffers dominate the current 3.x Eclipse platform.
There was plenty of "peace and love" rhetoric at EclipseCon - ironically, from the director of Microsoft's open source labs Sam Ramji announcing support for SWT - about how everything's better when the engineers are left to sort things out together.
Even engineers, though, can have corporate affiliations and technology preferences that might seem reasonable to the individual but lead to fights and disagreements.
The bottom line is this: Eclipse promotes Java, and that will continue to be a difficult corporate pill for Microsoft to swallow. As far as Sun is concerned, Eclipse is promoting the "wrong" flavor of Java - SWT instead of Swing, so Sun is leaving the work of interoperability between the two to others.
Little wonder, then, that with discussion on the fourth iteration of the Eclipse platform starting, there are already concerns about continued domination by IBM.
Milinkovich and early committers to Eclipse 4.0, or e4, speaking at EclipseCon, though, are phrasing there concern in more politically correct terms, expressing a desire for more "diversity" among committers.
That's important. Diversity would be welcomed - or, in the view of conspiracy theorists, sanctioned - by IBM, as more committers would help relieve the company from the burden of paying to support a tools platform that it ends up competing against as often as it uses.
A reduced role for IBM on the platform project would leave Eclipse swinging for committers. Suddenly, the call for diversity sounds like reality talking. Without a fresh intake, and in the absence of IBM, it's questionable whether the Eclipse platform could progress to the web and desktop friendly incarnation hoped for version four. Enter Sun and Microsoft.
That's if early work on e4 picks up, though. As Milinkovich told us: "This is a community based effort, and we often say things like: 'We're doing this, we're trying it out, and we hope people like it', but we don't know where it's going to end up."®