Tomorrow's great Eclipse

The software development platform Eclipse is still something of a well-kept secret. In a way, this is not so surprising; whereas all computer users have an operating system, and most of them use the Internet in some way - and hence are likely to come across both GNU/Linux and Apache, even if tangentially - the only people who get really excited by programming tools are developers. But the rise of Eclipse is, in its own way, potentially just as important as that of GNU/Linux or Apache.

The Eclipse project was launched in November 2001. Although the initial list of supporters included Borland, Red Hat and SuSE, the main driving force behind the idea was IBM, which donated $40 million of code. As both a good background presentation and FAQ explain, Eclipse is an extensible Java-based development environment created from a basic core plus plug-ins. Using Java means that the project is cross-platform, while modularity provides the ability to draw on other plug-ins for functionality and permits a classic open source distributed development approach.

It also allows the platform to expand way beyond its Java roots. Alongside the original Java IDE, called JDT - which allows Eclipse to be a development environment for itself - there are now IDEs for C/C++ and COBOL, as well as a proposal to create an IDE for Web/J2EE application development.

Together with this broadening of goals, another indication of the vigour of Eclipse is the range of community resources and the large number of plug- ins now available. These embrace both open source and commercial projects. Among the latter are products from Borland, HP and IBM - for its WebSphere Studio and Rational product lines. Also of note is how major embedded software companies such as MontaVista and QNX are turning to Eclipse as a framework for their programming tools. Other members of the Eclipse supporters club include Intel, Oracle and Novell. The last of these has announced that it will use Eclipse to provide a common tools platform across all its products.

Two key names missing here are Sun and Microsoft. There is some debate over whether part of IBM's original idea behind Eclipse was to reduce Sun's influence within the wider Java community - the provocative name certainly suggests this. Eclipse has moved on, though, and while it is true that Sun finds its open source NetBeans platform increasingly sidelined by the growing power of Eclipse, that is probably only a by-product of the latter's success rather than a goal.

The case of Microsoft is quite different. It is clear that most of the companies behind Eclipse see it as an opportunity to hit Microsoft where it hurts: in the development community.

Eclipse is a plausible threat to Microsoft's Visual Studio. Its strength is not just that it offers developers all of the features they have come to expect from a modern IDE but that it can offer things that Microsoft cannot, including availability on multiple hardware and software platforms, an open architecture that lets users select or even write exactly the tool they need, and a level playing field that encourages creative competition among software companies.

Glyn Moody welcomes your comments.