Eclipsing the future: .Net rivalry today and tomorrow

Paul Krill asked Mike Milinkovich, Eclipse executive director, about the state of Eclipse and discussed topics ranging from dynamic languages to rivalries with Sun and Microsoft

The Eclipse Foundation has established itself as a premier open source software tools project. The organisation has gained support from vendors ranging from IBM (which helped found Eclipse in 2001) to Borland Software, BEA Systems, and seemingly every other major player in the software industry except Sun Microsystems and Microsoft.

The EclipseWorld 2006 show afforded those using Eclipse technologies a chance to get updated on the latest developments at Eclipse.

Where is Eclipse headed and what new technologies are on the horizon?

That’s a open-ended question. When I look at the broad initiatives that are going on within Eclipse, a couple of things come to mind. First is continued growth and adoption around our Rich Client Platform, and that’s something that we expect to see continued emphasis on. We’re seeing more projects joining Eclipse around extending RCP in various areas, so that’s good news for RCP. And as we talked about in our recent press release, we’re very pleasantly surprised about the growing adoption and awareness of RCP.

A couple of other things in just sort of broad terms [include] more support for multiple languages. Eclipse has always been focused on being a platform for the development of language environments, and we’re seeing some really interesting new developments, some of them within Eclipse and some of them in commercial products.

In the commercial products space, Adobe is in the process of building and releasing its Flex Builder 2.0, which is an Eclipse-based development environment for ActionScript, which is their language for the Flex servers. And within Eclipse, in the next quarter we’re planning on having the first release from the PHP IDE project, which we think is really exciting. PHP [Hypertext Preprocessor] is a really important language both for enterprise development but [also for] web development in general, and having Eclipse tooling available for PHP is something that we’re pretty excited about.

That leads right into my next question: do you see more support for dynamic programming languages? You have PHP, you have the AJAX projects. Do you see more for some of the other languages that are out there? Ruby, Perl, Python?

Well, yes. Within the Eclipse ecosystem you can find Eclipse plug-ins and tooling for virtually every single dynamic language you can think of. There’s Eclipse tools for Ruby, RadRails is a project ... These are not projects at Eclipse, but they’re open source projects that are based on Eclipse ... RadRails is an open source project based on Eclipse for building an IDE for Rails, which is the Ruby framework. And you have PyDev for Python, which is a fairly popular.

This is another example of a plug-in, that is available from an open source project outside of Eclipse but is based on Eclipse.... For virtually every dynamic language you can imagine you can find Eclipse plug-ins to help enable development for it. And that really resonates back with what we were talking about previously about Eclipse being a platform for building development tools.

That’s really the fundamental mission of the Eclipse platform. So within Eclipse, as I mentioned, we have the PHP tools. We also have the AJAX Toolkit Framework, and so this provides a sort of added compiled debug for JavaScripts running inside the browser, so it provides an AJAX developer with a very nice development environment for use with Firefox in building AJAX applications. And there’s quite a few different AJAX frameworks out there, and it supports Dojo, Open-Rico and Zimbra currently, and I think they’re definitely planning on adding more in the future... And again, lastly I would mention the Rich AJAX Platform, which is a new project just getting started at Eclipse for providing an AJAX runtime that’s based on the Eclipse component model for developers who want to use that style of development for building AJAX applications.

Do you think there’s kind of an overlap in some Eclipse projects? You have the Eclipse Rich AJAX Platform, [and] there’s also an AJAX Toolkit Framework. I know for the time being you have data tools in the web tools Platform Project. You also have a separate Data Tools Platform Project. Do you think there’s a lot of overlap going on or is it just based on which vendor proposes which project without too much thought given to consolidation?

It’s a little bit of both. So, within Eclipse as an open source community we are willing to tolerate some overlap; let the projects work things out over time. And so far that’s actually worked out pretty successfully.

In the particular examples that you just raised I don’t see overlap. The AJAX Toolkit Framework and the Rich AJAX Platform don’t overlap. They’re two very different things. The first one, ATF, is focused on the needs of developers looking for tools for building AJAX applications. And the second one, RAP, is a runtime environment, a runtime framework, for building AJAX applications.

On the other example, with web tools and data tools projects, initially there was some overlap, but that’s actually probably almost a poster child for project cooperation at Eclipse, because as data tools came to be and started to work, the web tools guys moved their data connection layer and adopted the technology coming from data tools.

Is Eclipse de-emphasising Java and refocusing on some of the other languages that we talked about? Is it focusing on some of the scripting languages as well as on .Net while de-emphasising Java?

I wouldn’t say we’re de-emphasising Java. As Eclipse is growing and more projects join the fold, there are more resources to take on more languages and more platforms. Now almost every Eclipse project writes its code in Java. We’re clearly heavy users of Java.

But, in terms of Java being the only platform or language that we support within Eclipse, that’s never been the vision for Eclipse. It’s always been about supporting as many languages and as many platforms as we can find people willing to work on projects for.

There’s been some talk in the industry that Java is kind of yesterday’s technology. Sun wouldn’t like to hear that, but do you see it that way at all?

I kind of, frankly, take that stuff with a grain of salt. You know, there’s this constant hype machine within the high-tech industry that the next shiny new thing is going to be the grand vision that’s going to do everything that has never been done before.

What my observation is, is that Java is now getting to the point where it’s clearly mature enough and stable enough to meet the needs of mainstream enterprise development and I think that’s a good thing. Maturity isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s something that the people that are talking about the shiny new things should treat with respect.

I guess there’s kind of a trend towards putting the virtual machine on other languages.

Yes, and I think that’s a great idea. Well, I think what you’re saying is there’s a trend towards opening up the JVMs (Java Virtual Machines) to make it easier to support other languages. And I think that’s a great idea.

Why?

Because the programmers want more than one language, but there’s so much work and talent that’s been invested in the runtime infrastructure that’s part of the Java platform, that reinventing all of that technology for another language doesn’t make any sense.

You want to have a particular problem, which can be expressed more easily in a language other than Java, that’s great. But you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. I mean you still want to be able to use this highly tuned and mature runtime platform from companies like BEA and IBM, and JBoss and Oracle that have spent years perfecting this middleware infrastructure for web applications. You don’t want to throw that out just because you want [to] program in another language.

How much money would you estimate is being generated by Eclipse-based software or is Eclipse’s main attraction still that it’s all free?

I wish we actually had good numbers on trying to estimate the size of the Eclipse ecosystem. I’m quite confident that it’s in the billion-dollar range and probably more, but we just don’t have the hard numbers in terms of sizing that market.

Unfortunately we haven’t been able to get an analyst to actually spend the time to quantify those numbers. But what you said about the attraction of Eclipse being that it’s free, the economics of the Eclipse model are a little bit different to that because the Eclipse community as a whole is almost uniquely focused on enabling a commercially profitable ecosystem or market around the free platform.

So yes, we do provide open source tools and frameworks from Eclipse and those are provided for free. But we definitely are motivated across the Eclipse ecosystem to see people and companies make money from the Eclipse platform.

What’s going on with Eclipse as far as application lifecycle management is concerned? Some of that’s on the agenda here, but could you provide a synopsis of what’s going on there?

Sure. There are several different projects going on at Eclipse in the area. Serena is leading a project called ALF, Application Lifecycle Framework, and Compuware is leading a project called Corona. And these are both projects that are in fairly early days, they’re both in incubation.

But application lifecycle management is an area where we see definite growth at Eclipse, but it’s going to take some time for these projects to mature and really hit their stride.

What’s the difference between Corona and ALF?

ALF is really focused on providing the technology for choreographing tools across multiple developers, and Corona is more focused on making it easier to integrate tools within a single workbench environment or within a single desktop environment. [There are subtle differences] but there actually are important differences for developers.

Like what?

You ask this every time we talk. [I am] just trying to think of a way to make it really simple to explain. I mean think of it as ALF focusing on choreographing tool integration across a whole team. Corona is more focused on making it easier for one developer in his particular environment to do his job.

This next question is about something you mentioned at a conference in San Francisco. You talked about how you don’t really need salespeople any more. I just met with a company (Genuitec) that’s basing its technology on Eclipse and it doesn’t have any salespeople. Do you see this as a trend where software companies, particularly open source software companies, don’t have salespeople because they don’t see the need? Do you see anything happening there?

I think that over time things are changing. What you’re really talking about is what is the channel by which people acquire software?

There’s multiple ways you can acquire software. You can download it and use it, whether it’s for free or for purchase. You can buy it packaged or you can deal with a direct salesforce.

Historically, enterprise software has been sold through the direct salesforce channel, and I do believe over time, we’re starting to see success in open source software products in areas that have been traditionally the realm of the direct salesforce. I’m thinking of things like SugarCRM and Compiere and open source products like this. And those environments or those products have very, very low cost of sales, so as customers get more used to that, to being successful with that kind of software acquisition, I think that over time, yes, there are going to be fewer and fewer software sales[people].

Here’s the standard question that I usually ask last. Is anything going on as far as Sun joining Eclipse or merging NetBeans and Eclipse is concerned?

Nope, absolutely not.

No talks in the last year; two years?

I bump into (Sun executive) Simon Phipps at conferences and have a drink with him once in a while.

There was one Java project that Sun was working on with Eclipse?

There was a Sun committee working on [one] — it was actually on the base Eclipse platform to enable it for Solaris x86, as I recall. So it was getting Eclipse running on one of their operating system platforms.

But there has been no further movement since then?

No. And [in the] conversations I’ve had with Sun, they’ve made it pretty clear that they’re not really interested in doing anything other than continuing to push their NetBeans strategy.

What do you think of there being two kind of rival camps? Is it good for competition?

Well, we’re certainly not shy of competition and, frankly, we’re winning.

They seem to say differently.

Oh, good for them. I got the numbers, they haven’t.

Who do you see as your main rival, NetBeans or Windows .Net?

We clearly and have always felt that Eclipse is about enabling competition with Microsoft.

How have you fared there?

Actually, we started five years ago and I would say that starting from zero, the growth of Eclipse over the past five years has been absolutely phenomenal.

It’s been wonderful to see the development community embrace Eclipse the way it has over the last five years.

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