In just five years, the Eclipse platform has hit critical mass
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Open-source advocates famously have a religious fervor to their testimonials. But when a free software platform powers a business transformation that doubles your sales, it's not hard to understand why a solution provider would
sing hosannas about it.
Take Genuitec, an ISV that began life as an enterprise services consultancy and now is a thriving testament to the power of Eclipse, the open-source Java development framework that celebrates its fifth anniversary this month.
Based in Flower Mound, Texas, Genuitec first encountered Eclipse while seeking out more affordable software development tools than those offered by commercial vendors. Intrigued by Eclipse, Genuitec adopted the framework and began building components atop it for internal use. Then Eclipse spread like wildfire through the software development industry. Genuitec found itself taking on increasingly more work related to Eclipse development and realized its Eclipse plug-ins were becoming its most valuable asset.
In May 2003, Genuitec took the plunge and transformed itself into an ISV, releasing the first version of its MyEclipse integrated development environment (IDE). With more than 325,000 users now paying for MyEclipse and his company's revenue doubling each year, CEO Maher Masri is thrilled with the decision.
"Our profitability and margin and exposure are higher than they were on the consulting side," Masri said. "From a top-line revenue standpoint, our sales are at least twice what they were at the peak of our consulting business."
Five years. Less than 2,000 days. In that time, Eclipse has evolved from an IBM-controlled experiment to a de facto industry standard for Java development. A recent Evans Data Corp. (EDC) study deemed the Eclipse developer population, estimated at around 2.2 million, to be the industry's second largest, just trailing Microsoft's .Net ecosystem.
"More of a community than a planned and deliberately architected IDE, Eclipse is the juggernaut that is taking the development world by storm," EDC wrote. "Eclipse is the most popular Java IDE right now and is well on its way to becoming one of the most popular IDEs for any language."
The juggernaut had a relatively quiet start. Eight years ago, IBM developers were growing frustrated over the profusion of point tools they needed to cobble together to build their applications. HTML editors, Java IDEs, XML editors, testing toolsall had different interfaces and quirks. Even IBM's tools portfolio included an assortment of heterogeneous point products with little integration.
"The complexity was incredible," recalled Dave Thomson, an IBM engineer who led the initial Eclipse project and now serves as IBM's representative on the Eclipse Foundation board. "We wanted to unite the user-interface paradigms so that once you learned one tool, you could use them all. We realized that in order for our customers to get the most from that functionality, it needed to be an industry effort."
Eclipse's developers began pushing the argument up the IBM management chain that their fledgling platform should be open-sourced. The process took a year for executive deliberations and legal vetting, but in November 2001, IBM set Eclipse free and fired off a press release touting its open-source donation of software, which it valued at $40 million.
NEXT: Closer look at the Eclipse IDE
Eclipse is generally described as a Java IDE, but it's actually a step up the food chain: an IDE for IDEs. Programmers use the Eclipse framework to create development applications that plug into the platform, enabling tools from competing vendors to integrate and share a common interface.
An industry "standard" is only valuable when it hits critical mass. What makes Eclipse such a phenomenon is how quickly that happened. Adobe Systems, Borland Software, SAP and BEA Systems are among the dozens of companies that now base their IDEs on Eclipse, and coders have built modules enabling Eclipse development for nearly every language and platform.
Users cite Eclipse's permissive licensing as a key factor in its rapid adoption. The Eclipse Public License was explicitly designed to be business-friendly. It allows developers of derivative works to incorporate Eclipse code into commercial products and to keep any changes they make proprietary. For ISVs that make their living off Eclipse, that's criticalboth in enabling their own business models and in encouraging other companies to adopt Eclipse, broadening the market.
Custom development firm Instantiations, Portland, Ore., is a longtime IBM partner that used to create add-ons for IBM's Visual Age for Java development environment. Invited to one of IBM's first Eclipse briefings, before the project went public, it liked the concept and shifted its focus.
"We're pretty entrepreneurial, and we're opportunistic. After we got some experience with Eclipse, we looked at each other and said, 'If this works, every time some other large vendor puts their code base on top of Eclipse, it's going to open up a new market for us,' " said Mike Taylor, CEO of Instantiations.
At the time, the decision was a gamble. But over the past five years, Eclipse has toppled its rivals like dominos. As companies such as SAS adopt Eclipse as the foundation of their development, they become potential customers for Eclipse ISVs (and, indeed, SAS is a heavy user of Instantiations' Eclipse add-ons).
Instantiations' revenue grew 100 percent from 2003 to 2005 and recently ranked 51st on a list of Oregon's fastest-growing private companies. "Our growth was pretty dramatic, and it was primarily Eclipse-based," Taylor said.
In addition to its acclaimed licensing approach, Eclipse's other edge is its community. Plenty of open-source projects thrive because they attract smart, passionate developers; Linux is the canonical example. Eclipse's unusual talent lies in luring commercial rivals to work together comfortably as productive contributors.
The Eclipse Foundation's membership roster is a listing of nearly every major software makermany competitors of IBM, the organization's founderand includes Oracle, CA, Borland, Compuware, Mercury, BEA and so on. Participants say IBM's decision to legally separate itself from Eclipse in 2004 and hand control over to the independent, nonprofit Eclipse Foundation was critical in boosting Eclipse's credibility.
"Nobody wants to hang a big part of their future on IBM because IBM is a big, 500-pound gorilla," said Rich Main, director of Java development environments at SAS, Cary, N.C. SAS began eyeing Eclipse in early 2002 but waited another year to join, until the wheels were in motion for IBM to surrender control. "There were a lot of major players staying on the sidelines because they perceived Eclipse as being an IBM-controlled organization," he said.
NEXT: The Eclipse community
Eclipse's independent structure stands in sharp relief to that of another major software standardization and community-building effort: the Java Community Process. Sun Microsystems is moving toward open-sourcing Java, but for now, it owns copyrights and code and retains final say over Java decisionsa structure some JCP participants grumble renders the group's decision-making process too slow and autocratic.
"The simple fact is that Eclipse is truly an open community," Main said. "You sit at the board meetings and there's 20 representatives from 20 companies, and we're all equal in talking about our opinions. IBM's influence in Eclipse is still large, and they produce a tremendous amount of the software that comes out of Eclipse, but they have one vote. Ask Dave Thomson if he always gets his way."
Does he? IBM's Thomson cracks up at the question. "I don't think there's been anything we were fundamentally opposed to," he hedged.
Eclipse has wooed most of the industry into its fold, but one high-profile holdout remains: Sun. To the frustration of many Java devotees, Java's creator has a frosty relationship with the organization steering Java's most popular development platform. Sun's commitment to NetBeans, its own open-source IDE, and oft-stated concerns about IBM's stake in Eclipse keep it outside the fold. The two sides have held occasional negotiations over the years, but Eclipse Foundation Executive Director Mike Milinkovich said there's no sign of a thaw.
That frustrates Eclipse participants who long for Sun's blessing and contributions. "Sun has great stuff," Instantiations' Taylor said. "If they would bring it to the party, we could be even stronger as a group against the true competitor, Microsoft."
But Eclipse has plenty of other plans as it heads into its fifth year. In June, the organization celebrated a major milestone with Callisto, its first coordinated release of 10 major project updates. The synchronized update schedule makes it easier for Eclipse's partners to plan their own software releases around a more unified Eclipse road map. Next June's Europa release train is already on the tracks.
Spotlighting the platform's diversity is another of the Eclipse Foundation's goals for the year. Eclipse is best known for its Java tooling, but it also supports robust projects for alternative niches like PHP and mobile device software projects. The relatively new Rich Client Platform is a much-buzzed-about toolset, one that was used to construct NASA's Mars Rover launch vehicle.
And, of course, Eclipse and its users will continue spreading the gospel of the platform's competitive advantages. Robert Day, vice president of marketing at embedded software developer LynuxWorks, became an evangelist after LynuxWorks ditched Visual Studio for the less-expensive, more elegant Eclipse. The move enabled the San Jose, Calif., solution provider to redistribute development resources from IDE hacking to building more products for its customers.
"I'm passionate about Eclipse. It's nice that something open and community-driven can come on the scene and take off in an industry that's as commercial and competitive as ours often is," Day said. "In the many years I've been doing this, nothing like this has ever happened before."