Eclipse Casts Shadow on Sun

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2005-05-20

Eclipse Casts Shadow on Sun

Does Sun have lunar envy?

One would never know, but given the momentum generated by the Eclipse juggernaut with the Eclipse Foundations signing of big guns like BEA Systems and Sybase, and its garnering deeper support from Borland at its EclipseCon 2005 conference in March, it would be hard not to envy Eclipse.

The Eclipse open-source development platform has far outdistanced Sun Microsystems Inc.s NetBeans in terms of developer and vendor support, but Sun has vowed to continue to innovate around NetBeans while practically everybody else in the Java world is supporting Eclipse.

And this week Sun announced a new version of NetBeans. Newly announced NetBeans 4.1 touts support for J2SE (Java 2 Standard Edition) 5.0, tight integration with J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) 1.4 and support for J2ME (Java 2 Micro Edition) 2.0, as well as new wizards to help build Enterprise JavaBeans more easily, among other features.

Click here to read more about NetBeans 4.1.

Meanwhile, by the end of next month, the Eclipse Foundation plans to deliver Version 3.1 of Eclipse, which will provide "dramatic" performance boosts, feature J2SE 5 support, and deliver enhanced tooling support in the Eclipse Plug-in Development Environment and Visual Editor projects for building and deploying RCP (Rich Client Platform) applications.

So the competition wages on.

After Eclipse threw this years EclipseCon bash in Burlingame, Calif., Sun a week later stood its ground and dropped a "me too" announcement touting community support for NetBeans.

But while Sun signals its resolve, the rest of the Java tools world is not moving to revolve around Sun.

"Can anybody ignore Eclipse?" asked Forrester analyst Carl Zetie in a session at the EclipseCon 2005 conference. "No," Zetie responded to his own question, and then added, "Maybe Microsoft."

But not even Microsoft can ignore it. The software giant sent an entourage to EclipseCon 2005 and delivered a talk about Visual Studio at the event.

And of the tools landscape, a Microsoft source said: "The game is not over, but when we think of developer ecosystems other than Visual Studio we think Eclipse. We dont think NetBeans."

New Eclipse Foundation members echoed that sentiment.

Jim Rivera, director of technology at BEA, said Eclipse momentum helped lead BEA to join. "Its critical for us to remove any barriers that exist for developers to build on top of our platform," he said.

Raaj Shinde, vice president of product strategy and architecture at Borland, said, "Theres a significant increase in the momentum of Eclipse.

And Pat Kerpan, Borlands chief technology officer, said Eclipse "might be the end of the constant retooling weve gone through over the years. … This could be the beginning of a framework that will live across multiple epochs to come."

Next Page: Can the Eclipse lovefest last?

Will the love last


However, some say they doubt the Eclipse lovefest can last. They say that with longtime rivals such as BEA, IBM, Borland and others now in the same organization, there is bound to be infighting.

Timothy Cramer, director of NetBeans in the Java and Developer Tools group at Sun, said of Eclipse: "They do have a lot of momentum … but I think theyre going to end up with a lot of competing interests."

But it will remain up to developers to choose.

"This used to be a flashy debate but is losing luster with the rapid adoption and growth of Eclipse as a platform for developing rich client applications," said Benjamin Booth, a developer with webMethods Inc. "Theres no real debate here. Those who debate NetBeans versus Eclipse are out of touch with inevitability."

"My basic response to NetBeans is really, Who cares?" said another developer, who asked not to be identified. "They havent built up any kind of external community to support it or that cares about it in the least. I predict Sun will continue to do what BEA did, that is, beat their head against the wall working on a proprietary infrastructure for two years. … BEA took two years; Sun will take at least that because theyve proven to be more stubborn.

"Additionally, look at Suns history with development tools—theyve never been successful with any of them, ever. NetBeans wont be any different. No interest, no community, no revenue from it—dead man walking. It will just take time for Sun to go through the seven stages of grief about it."

Forresters Zetie added: "Theres no doubt in my mind that as far as enterprise developers are concerned, Eclipse has won—at least outside of Microsofts sphere of influence—with major tools vendors such as Actuate, Borland, BEA and Sybase lining up to join IBM/Rational in porting their tools to Eclipse, a vibrant ecology of plug-ins, and an architecture designed explicitly to support extensibility and integration. Eclipse is more than just a development platform; it is a full life cycle platform."

The Eclipse Foundations intent was to eclipse Microsoft, not Sun. Click here to read more.

Meanwhile, Sun is trying to take advantage of recent NetBeans advancements with a program to entice Eclipse developers to switch to NetBeans, which preceded Eclipse. On the Web page identifying the program, Sun asks: "Are you still working in the dark?"

Yet, analysts are seeing no mass exodus. Evans Data Corp. shows Eclipse as the No. 1 Java IDE and growing.

Next Page: Why some prefer NetBeans.

NetBeans pros

However, there are defections, as well as many developers who use and prefer NetBeans. Sun this week boasted of 4.5 million downloads for NetBeans since it was launched, with more than 1 million occurring over the last six months.

Bob Laferriere, vice president of engineering at Echelon 4 Corp., said he switched his groups development environment to NetBeans 4.0 from Eclipse 3.0 because NetBeans has a more intuitive interface, an integrated Ant build environment and productivity tools he prefers.

"We wanted something with a more native look and feel," Laferriere said.

Much of Laferrieres complaint was with the Eclipse plug-in architecture. "Eclipse doesnt come preconfigured for the way developers work," he said, noting that it was a hassle for him to have to search for the plug-ins he needed to build applications.

Yet Laferriere also said he thought the refactoring support and code wizards for Eclipse might be a "little better."

Suns Cramer said that while NetBeans was "stagnant for a while," Version 4.0 was a big boost in functionality and "were getting a lot of people to switch."

Indeed, Cramer said, NetBeans is "not just an IDE, absolutely not. We offer the same RCP environment as Eclipse."

Systinets free Eclipse-based tool aids in the creation, debugging, compliance testing and deploying of Web services. Find out more here.

Jochen Krause, president of Innoopract Informationssysteme GmbH, of Karlsruhe, Germany, said his team used to use NetBeans before the company became an Eclipse member. "Our developers had a hard time adapting to Eclipse at first," he said. "Nowadays they would not even think about switching back."

Justin Shaffer, vice president and chief architect at MLB Advanced Media LP, the Internet and new media arm of Major League Baseball, and an end user Sun promoted at its JavaOne conference, said while his organization mandates the platform developers use, "such as Java and JES [Suns Java Enterprise System], were very flexible with our development team on the IDE end of things. And most of the team is using Eclipse by choice."

Shaffer said he had "no complaints at all" about Eclipse, but he said hed like to see more collaborative development support in the platform.

Meanwhile, some developers tout NetBeans support for scripting languages through the Coyote project, which supports Jython and Groovy. But, while crediting Sun for its scripting language support, Krause said Eclipse has similar functionality available via plug-ins.

And beyond differences in the platforms, the two leading companies have both been perceived as exploiting their position in the respective organizations. Sun has been accused of dominating the Java Community Process to its advantage, and the same has been said of IBM regarding Eclipse. But Eclipse members note that IBM spun Eclipse out into an independent organization, while the governance model for NetBeans "is Sun and a few vendors or Sun appointees," a developer said.

A member of the Apache Foundation says the Sun-led JCP actually stifles competition. Click here to read more.

"Eclipse is independent; NetBeans is Sun," said Thomas Murphy, an analyst with Gartner Inc.

However, despite the positioning, Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, said he does not view Eclipse as competing with NetBeans—at least not in the IDE space.

"Eclipse is not an IDE," Milinkovich said. "First of all were a platform —if you want to talk about it in just a technical sense. But the second thing is were an open-source community thats doing a whole pile of projects. Were up to 36 projects, three of which make up JDT [Java Development Tools]. So there are 33 other projects that have nothing to do with the Java IDE.

"So there are lots of things that are going on at Eclipse that go far and beyond any attempt to compare Eclipse to NetBeans. Were not going to get into any feature-to-feature comparison with NetBeans."

In fact, many say the recent success of Eclipse can be largely attributed to Milinkovich. BEA officials acknowledged that Milinkovichs outstretched hand helped bring them to the table.

Next Page: Does Eclipse need Sun?

Does Eclipse need Sun


Asked how important it would be to have Sun as a member, Milinkovich said: "Its not. From my perspective I dont want a member of Eclipse that doesnt want to be here. Im not focused on, and the Eclipse Foundation is not focused on figuring how to recruit Sun.

"Were figuring out how to make our community better and how to grow our community. And its not in any way meant to take away from anything that Sun is doing, or take away from the Sun-sponsored Java community. Were not focused on hurting them; were focused on helping us. And if Sun decides its in their business interest to join, then absolutely."

Yet, the overwhelming success of Eclipse could put it at odds with Java standards organizations, some observers said.

"Im concerned Eclipse is becoming a standardization process itself," Murphy said.

Milinkovich dismissed this.

"When I look at Sun I see three," Milinkovich said. "Theres Sun the platform provider, theres Sun the steward of the JCP, and theres Sun the NetBeans project. Sun the platform, if they want Sun ONE to be successful they should encourage Eclipse tooling for it. That makes sense. Sun as the JCP, we have no argument with the JCP whatsoever. We implement JCP standards, and we see ourselves as being complementary with the JCP. Sun the NetBeans … well, to the degree that open-source projects can compete, we compete. But I think thats a good thing."

Moreover, when the Eclipse Foundation was about to go independent last year, Sun sent an open letter to the membership offering its help and listing suggestions. A year later, Eclipse management said Sun has yet to actually propose or deliver anything to Eclipse.

Click here to read "Sun: Secret Negotiations on Eclipse Continue."

In fact, some Eclipse members even questioned whether Sun should be offering help at all when its own approach to open source, at least where Java is concerned, has been lukewarm.

For instance, Sun released new Java licensing models this spring that the company said approach open source, but observers say dont go far enough.

"Sun is being greedy," said Anne Thomas Manes, an analyst with Burton Group Inc. "They want the benefits of open source—getting vast hordes of developers to contribute fixes and new ideas to the Java code base for free—but they arent willing to actually contribute source code to the research/open-source community."

Eric Raymond, an open-source advocate and consultant from Malvern, Pa., who Sun called to help draft its open-source strategy for Solaris, said of the latest Java licensing moves: "These latest moves seem confused, timid and rather stupid. My guess is theyre the results of a political compromise between warring pro- and anti-open-source factions inside the company."

Meanwhile, Sun claims its open-source legacy speaks for itself.

But, for its part, Cramer said Sun is "extremely committed to NetBeans." And while there will be no NetBeans equivalent to EclipseCon, Sun plans to have a NetBeans Day at this years JavaOne next month in San Francisco, he said.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Eclipse faces is that of handling its own success and growing despite it.

"I know were going to grow and were going to continue to grow in a lot of different dimensions," Milinkovich said. "A successful future for Eclipse would be that we repeat our success with other projects."

Added Murphy: "NetBeans may be better, but it is the BetaMax in this race, and the tape format is driving where the machine goes."

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