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9/7/2006
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Open-Source Tool Gains Traction To Help Build User Interfaces

Usage of Eclipse to help build rich, client-side interactive user interfaces has been growing, according to an Evans Data survey.

Eclipse, the open-source programmer's workbench, is gaining use as a platform for building rich client, interactive end-user interfaces for distributed systems.

Until recently, Java tools had been employed for server applications and were overshadowed by the popularity of Microsoft's Visual Studio .Net toolset for end-user interfaces. The Eclipse Foundation has been attempting to counter that, given its strong Java tool constituency, by setting standards and making available tools for an Eclipse Rich Client Platform (RCP).

A recent survey by Evans Data, a programmer market research group, indicated that 23% of 384 respondents were building rich client applications with the Eclipse RCP. The survey focused on users of Eclipse, so it can't be viewed as competitive analysis with Microsoft's Visual Studio. Nevertheless, the survey results showed RCP gaining traction, up from 9.3% of a similar number of respondees last year.

"There are few things more demanding than rich client user interfaces," noted Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation. Rich client applications seek to provide end users with data from a server that they can work with on a PC in a series of interactions with a server. The Eclipse RCP gives developers a library of user interface components and a best-practices approach to implementing them.

RCP shouldn't be confused with rich clients that work over the Internet. Internet rich clients typically stage user interactions in the browser window, which has many limitations. For its part, Eclipse RCP seeks to put a series of interactions with the user into an application running on a desktop or laptop Windows PC, Apple Macintosh, or Linux-driven computer. Nevertheless, Milinkovich said Eclipse RCP is "being viewed as an alternative to Microsoft's .Net" because it follows industry standards, set by the OSGi standards body, formerly known as the Open Services Gateway Initiative. It also reaches a variety of client platforms instead of being Windows-centric, he said in an interview.

Another way that Eclipse is trying to compete with Microsoft is through greater ease of use of its workbench environment. Although Eclipse provides a rudimentary integrated development environment, Genuitec's MyEclipse plug-in to the workbench provides a more sophisticated one and is gaining popularity. MyEclipse is available for free download, with annual support subscriptions provided by Genuitec for $29.95 a year for the standard edition and $49.95 for the professional edition.

Genuitec president Maher Masri said annual support for Java tools used to run in the range of $3,000 per developer. The MyEclipse environment presents aids to debugging code, providing access to data sources and support for operating as a Web service. Genuitec has support contracts representing 300,000 users, he said, but many additional developers use the MyEclipse integrated development environment who don't opt for the support contracts.

Eclipse has proven a rallying point for a wide variety of Java tool vendors because it imposes file-sharing conventions on tools that would otherwise be incompatible. Many tools can plug into the programmer's workbench and swap files. IBM made its early Eclipse software open source in 2001.

The tools business has become intensely competitive, with Microsoft and IBM maintaining strong market shares but open-source tools undercutting other players. Sun continues to offer a full line of Java tools, starting with NetBeans. Compuware and Telelogic offer specialized tools. But Borland, once a dominant tool supplier, has quietly been hunting for private investors to take over its tools unit as it moves into application lifecycle management software.

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