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NetBeans Roadmap Has Many Avenues

SAN FRANCISCO -- The man who invented the Java programming language says competition has been healthy in the development sector, but advises that companies should at least use the same APIs when creating their toolboxes.

James Gosling, Sun Microsystems' Chief Technology Officer for Sun's Developer Platform, said the key to keeping interoperability between application servers has been hampered by the existence of dueling integrated development environments (IDE) most notably the IBM-supported Eclipse initiative.

The issue recently came to a head after Sun refused to join the consortium, putting Gosling's NetBeans project in conflict with other IDEs. Industry watchers say the rankling could further polarize the industry's attempt to unite Java development efforts to combat Microsoft's .NET initiative.

During a press briefing at the Sun offices here, Gosling offered an olive branch saying there might be an opportunity for the two developer tool consortiums to work together in the future.

"NetBeans is our future in tools," Gosling said. "Our involvement in Eclipse -- should it happen -- would be in tools integration. Exactly what form it takes, I'm not sure. But it will not be to throw out NetBeans for Eclipse. I want NetBeans to have a bright and happy future and at some level, I would like a happy future for Eclipse and others. I'm a big believer in bio-diversity. Nonetheless, I'd like NetBeans to be one of the winners."

The NetBeans platform is the foundation for Sun's developer tools strategy and the Sun Java Studio products, including Sun Java Studio Creator (code-named Project Rave). The framework is heavily tied to Sun's Java Enterprise System.

The platform is an open source, modular IDE written in Java. Currently it supports Java development, but its architecture lends itself to supporting other languages as well. Since it's written in Java, it'll run on any platform with a Java Virtual Machine.

Using common APIs (application program interfaces) could solve much of the integration problems, Gosling said. One such suggestion is a Java Specification Request (JSR) number 198. Titled, "The Standard Extension API for Integrated Development Environments", Sun and other companies like Oracle say the addition to the Java development rules and regulations could allow for better interoperability.

Gosling said theoretically his plan could take about a year to implement.

"The endgame is in sight," he said. "A lot will depend on the consensus. Some of that will be technical and some of that will be political. One of the strengths of NetBeans is that it will serve as a plug-in backplane, one where you could install extensions of all sorts. "Where it gets dicey is where you have third-party developers that have plug-ins and where they develop for this platform or that platform. If you turn back the clock, NetBeans was the only one out there. Now there is Eclipse and Borland's JBuilder. Fundamentally, I'm happy with the way that things have turned out, for example with the EE edition of the APIs."

The hot button issues between IDEs are also being addressed with the establishment of the Java Tools Community (JTC). Only a week old, the group is focused on bringing tools vendors together with the common goal of a unified application framework. Many of the details are proprietary and confidential; a source at Sun said the company has been working on this for several months.

As for combating .NET, Gosling said Microsoft's advantage is that the company can pursue ideas without consulting other groups.

"They just go with the first idea that pops into their heads," he said "With our group, it is more Darwinian and it hard to see what will be important. We do things like innovation and testing and a serious trial by fire. The whole notion of one guy having a bright idea in his head, like myself, is a bunch of hooey."

In fact, the NetBeans community is quite vast, featuring more than 100 partners and 24,000 developers and tools vendors including the likes of Compuware, Embarcadero, Iopsis, MAKE Technologies, Nexaweb, Quest Software and Systinet.

Representatives with Compuware, Openwave and Quest, who also work within the .NET realm, all said NetBeans was crucial for connecting with their developer communities, but admitted that it was not a panacea.

"I would not characterize one is better than the other. We deal with the same issues," said Compuware OptimaJ product manager Mike Burba. "The difference is that there is no standards process on the .NET side and that there is one tool. There is more than one tool on the Java side. Having a standard plug-in API will greatly improve the availability of those things."

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun officials say demand for NetBeans 3.5, the most current version of the NetBeans software, has reached 1.8 million downloads since its June 2003 release.

Last month, the NetBeans community announced a new roadmap for the NetBeans platform, outlining the 3.6 and 4.0 releases. The NetBeans 3.6 release is targeted for release sometime before the end of March. The 4.0 release is expected in the third quarter of this year.

Version 3.6 focuses on a new look and feel for the IDE and looks native on platforms like Windows. Beyond the cosmetic, the upgrade has a redesigned code editor that lets developers switch their workflow between the code editor and the development tools.

One new feature, Code Folding, lets a developer hide and show different blocks of source code. The idea is to be able to collapse comments so the focus is solely on the code being working on. The incremental upgrade also adds support for J2EE 1.4 platform especially in the Servelets arena and an enhanced JSP.

Sun Microsystems NetBeans Engineering Director Steve Wilson said v3.6 already has inherent Web services and XML support in the form of XML editors and the latest Java developer pack tools.

"Version 4.0 has some of the biggest changes since we acquired the company in 2000," Wilson said. "It has automated re-factoring that allows you to rename methods or fields."

Wilson said NetBeans 4.0 also supports the latest J2SE environments including the upcoming edition code-named Tiger. The IDE also adds special functions for smart coding, quick editing and a project management system.