Eclipse IDE at a crossroads

The app dev environment remains wildly popular, but low ratings indicate change may be needed

The popular Eclipse IDE could be at a major crossroads in its development.

Downloaded about 1 million times each month, the open source IDE has become a major force in software development, battling other giants such as Microsoft Visual Studio for the hearts and minds of developers. Eclipse and Visual Studio are, in fact, deemed de facto standards, with Visual Studio anchoring the Windows camp and Eclipse being the choice for Java development.

But not everything is coming up roses for Eclipse. An Eclipse Foundation official has suggested it may be time to pare down the functionality of the Eclipse platform. The IDE itself scored low on several functionality measures in a survey released in September 2007 that gauged the views of 1,500 developers last spring.

That Evans Data survey, which featured a variety of IDEs ranging from Visual Studio to Eclipse to CodeGear Delphi, had the Eclipse platform ranking seventh out of nine in ease of use and fifth out of nine in debugger capabilities. It ranked ninth out of nine in documentation, application modeling tools, profile tools, technical support, and sample applications. The Eclipse IDE came up eighth out of nine in performance of resulting applications.

But the Eclipse IDE did rank second in usage, first in its ability to integrate third-party tools, first in availability of third-party tools, and first in size and quality of its developer community.

Eclipse executive director Mike Milinkovich is undaunted by the findings. "I'm not concerned about the numbers."

"Ranking low in tech support? Well, you know what? We don't do tech support," Milinkovich said. There are, however, commercial avenues where users can get support for Eclipse, he noted.

"The numbers that we care about the most [are] the products that are being built on top of Eclipse," Milinkovich said, noting that the platform has served as a foundation for development of other products. There are currently more than 1,000 plug-ins on the Eclipse Plugin Central Web page, Milinkovich said. As an example, one newly released commercial IDE refashioned around Eclipse is CodeGear JBuilder 2008, featuring an "application factories" capability to bolster reuse.

Is a pared-down version in the cards?
Still, despite such statements, the Eclipse Foundation may be looking at reining in the sprawling IDE. In March at the EclipseCon 2008 technical conference, an Eclipse official suggested a paring down of the Eclipse platform might be in order. "We started off as an integrated development environment, and now it's become an integrated everything environment. And so, the trouble is finding what you want in it," said Oliver Cole, who leads the Eclipse Test and Tools Platform Project.

Cole has since backpedaled on that statement, telling InfoWorld via e-mail afterward that "it is inevitable that some Eclipse projects will go away -- and they should for reasons that I mentioned earlier. This should not be feared but embraced as a sign of maturity in Eclipse. It is good. I am not aware of exactly which ones right now should be pared, but it is fair to say that the 2010 list of active Eclipse projects will be missing some from today's list," Cole said.

"As for what should be pared from today's IDE, that is too loaded of a question, because right now 'IDE' is the same as 'Eclipse' in people's minds, so saying that XYZ should not be in the Eclipse IDE would be confused by the community with saying that XYZ should not be in Eclipse," Cole said.

Still, Cole did reiterate that if all of Eclipse is considered to be a single IDE, then the IDE is too big.

Indeed, Eclipse has expanded and expanded, with projects and subprojects such as Data Tools Platform, Device Software Development Platform, and Voice Tools Project, to name a few. But Milinkovich does not think the IDE itself has gotten out of hand: "I don't think it's bloated."

But he would like to see Eclipse 4.0, the planned next major upgrade to the IDE set for 2010, produce a smaller, lighter framework for IDEs. "I think there's an opportunity to improve it," Milinkovich said.

Users still love the Eclipse IDE
"I strongly disagree," that the IDE needs to be pared down, said Eishay Smith, senior software engineer at LinkedIn. "I don't think it's the point of view of a programmer using Eclipse on a daily basis. One of the key advantages of Eclipse is its modularity, provided by the OSGi framework it is based on. It enables Eclipse to be broken down to modules [OSGi bundles] that may or may not be dependent on each other," he added.

"This behavior [enables] Eclipse to have a very small and lean core and enable one to build an application on it by adding features [the Rich Client Platform model]. The Eclipse IDE is a yet another set of modules which where assembled together. If one wishes to reduce its functionality, one may remove components from it," he added.

"I'm a regular user of the Eclipse IDE. I think it's a really great platform, especially the extensibility," said Mikka Andersson, an engineer at Nokia. "I'm trying to push our developers from using Visual Studio to use more Eclipse," he added.

"My use of it is basically to get a Java environment that is easy to use, and it fills that criterion for me," said Gary McCue, a principal technical writer at eBay's PayPal unit.

General Motors uses Eclipse because it integrates the design process from beginning to end, including requirements, design, and testing, said Rich Schupbach, a software developer at GM. The add-on modules help make that possible: "I'm most interested in the EMF [Eclipse Modeling Framework] because we use modeling for a lot of our software design work," Schupbach said

Like other technologies, the IDE does require some getting up to speed, users said.

"Anything that starts out with a blank screen always requires a learning curve," said PayPal's McCue.

"[The] initial learning curve was very, very steep, particularly with zero Java experience," noted Samuel Edge, CEO of Neoharbor, which makes electronic publishing software. "I estimate about six months of regular Eclipse and Java development efforts before I felt comfortable. Then over the next 18 months, the rate of grokking Eclipse and Java increased rapidly."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.