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.

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