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3/21/2006
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Eclipse Expands, Urges Shift Away From Windows User Interface

Eclipse Rich Client Platform offers developers a way to build user interfaces that run across Windows, Mac, and Linux desktops.

The Eclipse Foundation is expanding its core developer's workbench into a broader platform that competes more directly with Microsoft Windows, at least within the enterprise.

The workbench, which started out integrating dissimilar Java tools inside IBM in the mid-1990s, was brought into the public arena as open source code in 1998 and became a runaway success as a unifying platform for third-party tools. The fact that different design, coding, and debugging tools could work together under Eclipse made Java tools more competitive with the tightly integrated Visual Studio tool set from Microsoft.

Now Eclipse is looking to extend its success into new areas, including the user interface previously conceded to Microsoft Windows. It is moving rapidly, for example, to adopt Ajax-type technologies, now widely used in Web applications that interact with users in the way Google Maps does. And it is offering a standard client interface, the Eclipse Rich Client Platform, that can serve as a front end to enterprise applications running on Linux-based desktop computers or Apple Macintoshes, as well as PCs running Windows. While Macintosh and Linux users represent a small fraction of the total users in large corporations, the Eclipse foundation and its members think that picture could eventually change.

"The Rich Client Platform is pretty mature," said Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, which oversees the open source projects that add to Eclipse's capabilities.

"Over the next three years, Microsoft will be very busy encouraging shops to move off of Win32 APIs and move to [Windows] Vista. If a company is considering moving off Win32, they should look at Rich Client Platform" as a more robust, long-term answer for their application user interface needs, Milinkovich said Tuesday at an Eclipse Foundation press conference at the EclipseCon 2006 conference in Santa Clara, Calif.

At last year's EclipseCon conference, Jeff Norris and Mark Powell from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory showed how Eclipse end-user components—many of them originally conceived as parts of a developer's environment—worked well on the lab's Linux workstations. JPL used Eclipse to build an application to manage its Mars Rover mission.

"You can write once and run your application on Windows, Linux, or the Macintosh" by using Eclipse's Rich Client Platform, noted John Kellerman, manager of IBM's Eclipse strategy. After donating the original workbench code as open source, IBM has continued to contribute code to Eclipse projects which expand the workbench's capabilities. There are currently 61 such projects.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for example, used Eclipse's BIRT (Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools) standard for reports and charts using data generated by the Mars Rover management application. It used Java Advanced Imaging for managing images, Draw2D for drawing, Xerces-J for parsing XML documents, the PostgreSQL open source database, and Hibernate, an open source project sponsored by JBoss Inc. that maps software objects into the rows and tables of relational databases. All the open source code is geared to work with tools under Eclipse.

Since that presentation, the 3.1 version of Eclipse released in June included more user interface elements and linked them to more tool capabilities inside Eclipse.

"Eclipse is striving to be much more than an integrated development environment," said Milinkovich. This week the Eclipse Foundation said it was authorizing other open source initiatives to further extend the Rich Client Platform. The Data Tools Project will make it easier to write data-centric applications for the RCP. The communication Framework Project will enable the creation of RCP applications that use client/server or peer-to-peer messaging that include voice over IP, instant messaging, chat, and data sharing. The Enterprise Content Management Project will create a client platform for enterprise content management that allows shared document management, business processes, and business forms applications with RCP. And the Enterprise Component Framework Project will extend a set of server-side components for use with end user applications.

Part of the Eclipse Foundation strategy is to make it easier to deploy, maintain, and update such applications through life cycle management tools coming out of other open source projects sponsored by Eclipse. Deploying and updating Windows applications can be problematic and Eclipse is looking to be more competitive on that front with what it allows developers to do, Milinkovich said in an interview.

This story was modified on March 28 to indicate that Hibernate is an open source project sponsored by JBoss Inc.

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