Tomorrow’s Eclipse: ‘Faster, Smaller, Simpler’

RESTON, Va. — At a gathering of over 300 software developers here Tuesday, Eclipse Foundation executive director Mike Milinkovich framed the software development world as being centered around one key conflict — that between the Eclipse consortium and Microsoft.

“One could say that the battle has shaped up as the Eclipse ecosystem versus the Visual Studio ecosystem,” he told attendees of EclipseWorld during a panel on the future of Eclipse. Sitting alongside him were two senior statesmen of software development — Robert “Uncle Bob” Martin of Object Mentor, and David Intersimone, the vice president for developer relations of Borland’s CodeGear unit.

The trio, moderated by EclipseWorld conference chairman Alan Zeichick, hit on a wide range of topics in their conversation, including speculation on what a 4.0 version of Eclipse might look like, and how the changes in developer tools and the way software developers work are related.

Universally, the panelists agreed that any future iteration of Eclipse would have to be “faster, smaller, and simpler,” as Milinkovich said, but that would come from continued refinement of the current codebase, and not a total rewrite of the platform.

“I think the sign of maturity in a product is when you can make massive direction changes and to have to throw out all the old code,” Martin said.

When asked by Zeichick whether there was anything that the Visual Studio and NetBeans platforms had that Eclipse should, Milinkovich called comparisons between Eclipse and NetBeans “apples and oranges.”

“[Sun and NetBeans] do marketing really well,” he said. And they definitely have a few point solutions they do a very good job of promoting. But NetBeans is a Sun product. It’s not an open source community the way Eclipse is; it’s a finished product that they’re in the business of selling support for and making money off of.”

However, when the Sun-backed NetBeans 5.0 became publicly-available in December, Sun’s director of development tools said it was an open project that has benefited from community involvement. Not surprisingly, comparisons between the NetBeans and Eclipse IDEs abounded, with Sun officials hyping the ease in switching to NetBeans.

Milinkovich also predicted that Microsoft would at some point follow the architectural path of Eclipse with Visual Studio, turning it into a platform for others to extend.

“[Visual Studio] is sitting on top of an at least 10-year old code base. There is such a thing as code that’s past its ‘best before’ date. At some point, they’re going to release a new code base, and I’ll go out on a limb and say they’ll do it as a platform [like Eclipse]; imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Microsoft announced this week that Visual Studio 2008 will be shipped alongside its .NET Framework 3.5.

Martin said that the latest generation of tools based on the Eclipse platform has enabled a way of doing software development that he compared to “working a Rubik’s cube: pulling up parts of a code base and pushing others down, moving code into a new state. This is a very interesting way of working we couldn’t do five or six years ago. Couple that with test-driven development, and you have this really powerful tool for [creating software].”

Eclipse’s open source nature “has leveled the playing field,” said Intersimone, both among vendors and globally among developers.

“It’s interesting to see in certain emerging countries how Eclipse gives people an economic advantage,” he said. Because of global Internet access, “there’s a great mixing…now you can find developers anywhere.”

But the nature of the conversation also moved beyond tools and into the realm of the profession of software development itself. “While we might build products on Eclipse,” said Intersimone, “[this conference] is really about software engineering and finding new and better ways to do things.”

Martin agreed, and gave an indicting assessment of the state of software development. “In my consulting role, I look at a lot of code, and there is a lot of very very bad code out there It is time for our industry to find that it is a profession, and not a group of people who were thrown meat and told to write code.”

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