By Charles Babcock of InformationWeek
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
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 Cafe 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
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,"
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 CafŽ,
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 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."