Eclipse comes out of the shadows

On Nov. 7, 2001, IBM published the source code of its Eclipse development platform. As Eclipse celebrated its fifth anniversary as open-source software this week, it has found a prominent place among the software community.

Microsoft Corp.’s Visual Studio is the market-leading integrated development environment, says George Goodall, an analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group Inc., but Eclipse is a strong contender that definitely has a future, which may be more than can be said for some smaller rivals.

“There’s great corporate support there and it was a great base product,” Goodall says.

In an average month, the Ottawa-based Eclipse Foundation gets about half a million requests to download the base Eclipse software development kit, according to Ian Skerrett, the foundation’s director of marketing. Demand peaks somewhat higher at times, such as when updates are introduced. 

In addition to the base SDK, Skerrett adds, the Eclipse Foundation is involved with about 60 other related software projects, such as reporting, testing and modeling tools.

What many Canadians don’t realize is that Eclipse has a significant Canadian pedigree. An IBM development team in Ottawa spearheaded its creation – aided by teams in Toronto, Minneapolis and Zurich – and the non-profit Eclipse Foundation set up in 2004 to manage the project is also headquartered in Ottawa.

This is how that happened: In 1996, IBM acquired Object Technology International Inc., an Ottawa software firm that Dave Thomas, a Carleton University professor, had founded eight years earlier.

Dave Thomson had been one of Thomas’ students at Carleton and gone on to work at Object Technology International, ending up at IBM after the acquisition. Now a distinguished engineer at IBM’s Ottawa software lab, he recalls the genesis of Eclipse in the late 1990s.

With the explosion of the Internet and e-commerce, he says, many companies wanted to develop online applications. IBM could offer them tools for doing so, but they weren’t well integrated. “Our solution for our customers was to give them this box full of point tools.”

Not only was this not the best answer for customers, but it was inefficient for IBM to duplicate development efforts on an assortment of inconsistent development tools. The company decided it needed to create a new integrated development environment. That was Eclipse. Thomson was the development lead of the original Eclipse project.

So why did IBM open-source Eclipse? Thomson says it was a way to maximize adoption and create the best product. The idea was that “the real value of integration would come from the customer,” he says.

Skerrett says the goal was to create a common technology base that would gain widespread adoption and allow multiple developers to contribute and make their products work together. “I think one of the secrets that Eclipse has really tapped is how competing companies can work together,” he says.

Goodall adds that there was a strong economic argument too. “There’s no margin in integrated development environments, and no money in integrated development environments,” he says. Companies like IBM make their money on the database management systems, application servers and so forth, but they need IDEs in order to offer their customers a complete set of tools. So, says Goodall, “if there’s no margin in the product, it’s about controlling cost of development.” Open-sourcing Eclipse allowed IBM to do that and benefit from the input of other developers.

The Eclipse consortium that IBM set up shortly after open-sourcing the code included Borland, Merant (since acquired by Serena Software), Ottawa-based QNX Software Systems, Rational Software (since taken over by IBM), Red Hat Software, SUSE (now part of Novell Inc.) and TogetherSoft (since acquired by Borland). Today, the Eclipse Foundation has 152 members.

Though he foresees some people will disagree, Goodall says Eclipse is not the leading innovator in the IDE market. He gives that distinction to Microsoft’s Visual Studio, but he say Eclipse is doing well as a fast follower. “They’re about six months behind where Visual Studio is,” he says, “but that’s okay – they’re always within spitting distance.”

For the near future, says Skerrett, Eclipse development will have three main thrusts. There has been a lot of interest in a new rich client development platform, so developers will be working in that area. There will be an emphasis on developing software for specific vertical markets, such as health care and automotive, that embodies standards specific to those markets. And developers will continue enhancing development tools.

But the greatest challenge facing the Eclipse community may have little to do with coding. “I think that one of the interesting things the foundation is going to have to deal with is just growth,” Thomson says. Maintaining quality as the number of developers and the Eclipse community continues expanding won’t necessarily be easy – but it could be the main determinant of what kind of celebration will take place on Eclipse’s 10th anniversary.


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