IBM has had to walk a tightrope between open-source and proprietary forces to make the Eclipse programmer's workbench a success, Lee Nackman, chief technology officer in IBM's Rational Software unit, told attendees at the EclipseCon conference Thursday. By most measures, the high-wire act has succeeded "beyond our wildest imaginings," Nackman said.
Eclipse, a Java workbench that can host many unrelated development tools, has emerged as the prime alternative to Microsoft's popular Visual Studio .Net set of integrated programming tools. Nackman insisted the name Eclipse was aimed at Microsoft, not Sun Microsystems, originator of the Java programming language.
The name was selected in a January 2000 meeting at IBM's Raleigh, N.C., facility, Nackman said. "E-business was hot. We tried a lot of E-sounding names," but the Eclipse name stuck, he said. IBM realized at the time that Microsoft was on its way to establishing a dominant set of development tools with Visual Studio. To challenge them, IBM and other Java vendors, such as Symantec Corp. with Visual Café and Borland Software Corp. with JBuilder, were going to have to stop "reinventing the same things over and over again. We were not moving fast enough to keep up with Microsoft," he said.
IBM turned the idea of a tools platform over to a subsidiary, Object Technology International, in Ottawa, which used small teams to develop new tools. IBM's own Visual Age toolset was based on the Smalltalk language and "was getting increasingly brittle." The new development environment would have to remain flexible and allow dissimilar tools to plug into it and share files.
In November 2001 IBM decided to let Eclipse go public as a freely available open-source-code project.
Nackman said he and members of IBM's Visual Age and WebSphere groups thought top management would resist such a move, but they had seen earlier successes working with the Apache HTTP server group, now the Apache Foundation, and Linux open-source developers. "It turned out to be not much of a struggle," Nackman said.
Even so, for many months, many Java tool competitors refused to sign up as Eclipse users or joined the project as "voyeurs," watching from the sidelines but not committing to its ongoing development. The open-source project was launched with nine vendor backers, including Borland, Rational Software, TogetherSoft, and the new owner of the Java tool Visual Café, WebGain.
IBM remained the largest code and financial contributor to Eclipse and collected feedback from market researcher Gartner that indicated the outside world still thought of Eclipse as an IBM-controlled project.
IBM knew Eclipse needed "conceptual integrity" or technical leadership that kept it focused on its primary role as a plug-in platform for diverse tools. At the same time, major rivals were reluctant to invest in it when it was still under apparent IBM control. And potential users were confused: "What is Eclipse? An IBM thing or a weird open-source thing controlled by radical hippies?" Nackman said..
IBM "wanted to get into a put-up-or-shut-up mode" with Eclipse's titular supporters. The expansion of the Eclipse board of directors March 1 at the "strategic developer" level has brought in competing tool vendors BEA Systems, Scapa Technologies, and Sybase. Borland, already a member, increased its commitment to the strategic developer level, which carries a $250,000 annual fee.
With competing Java vendors offering Eclipse-based versions of their tools, "Eclipse has dramatically reduced fragmentation. The tools have come together. The ecosystem is thriving," Nackman said. Eclipse.org, a URL that four years ago had to be purchased from a girls' soccer team in Illinois, has become an open-source project that's rapidly branching out into data-management tools, Web tools, business-intelligence and reporting software, and test-and-performance projects.
To expand on its success, Eclipse will have to maintain a discipline of only permitting published programming interfaces into the workbench system and not letting the multiplying projects overlap too much. At EclipseCon, Nackman said he had seen the "good-faith discussions" that were resolving those issues. "People are coming in to this discussion asking what's good for Eclipse."
Proprietary technology vendors such as BEA Systems, Borland, and IBM can support Eclipse and still make products for sale, he said, because they "will constantly be lifting the line, constantly innovating above what Eclipse does."