Analysis: Open source IDE overshadows commercial competitors

IBM recently made available one of the better Integrated Development Environments (IDEs), especially for Java development. Eclipse is an open-source IDE written mostly in Java that, in terms of the user interface's responsiveness and utility, is hard not to like.

The parts of Eclipse not written in Java are a special, graphical widget set called SWT. SWT replaces AWT and Swing's role in mainstream Java applications. SWT's main benefits are its speed and appearance, which is much better than most Swing applications. Being non-standard though, SWT is only supported on a few platforms. This becomes a serious drawback when compared to the strong platform support Swing enjoys.

Where you stand on the SWT debate (a heated debate at that) aside, Eclipse works well as an IDE. I don't like a few of its quirks, particularly when setting up projects, but I've found that I have trouble getting most IDEs to do exactly what I want.

Being open-source, Eclipse is freely available at http://www.eclipse.org. You can download a variety of Intel-based Linux packages, as well as Windows, Solaris, AIX, and QNX versions. A MacOS X version is also in development. Since I last wrote about Eclipse (http://www.itworld.com/nl/lnx_desktop/02142002), the IDE has come very near its 2.0 release. However, look for the latest build that has passed a number of tests on the download page. As Eclipse nears the 2.0 release, the latest builds have not been passing the tests.

Right now, Eclipse is primarily for Java developers, although C/C++ modules are in the works. Like other IDEs, Eclipse is really a core application, called the "workbench", and a set of add-on modules. Java development support comes as a set of modules, so you can conceivably add support for other programming languages. A number of plug-ins, many free, can be found to add features like interfacing to the Perforce source-control system.

Eclipse is the open-source low-end IBM Java IDE. On the commercial front, IBM sells WebSphere Studio (http://www.ibm.com/websphere/studiofamily). Rational produces another commercial version of Eclipse called Rational XDE (http://www.rational.com/products/xde). Rational built their IDE on top of the Eclipse base, adding in features such as UML design tools.

Eclipse isn't the only game in town for Linux IDEs though. Both NetBeans/Forte and JBuilder serve the needs of many developers. Like Eclipse, NetBeans (http://www.netbeans.org) is an open-source IDE that supports add-on modules. NetBeans offers more J2EE features than the basic Eclipse at the cost of a standard (and somewhat ugly) Swing user interface. Sun sells the commercial version of NetBeans, called Forte for Java (http://wwws.sun.com/ffj).

The other main Linux IDE for Java is Borland's Jbuilder (http://www.borland.com/jbuilder), which is available as a free Personal Edition. You cannot use software developed with the Personal Edition for any kind of commercial projects though.

If you are working on Java software development, Eclipse is worth a try. Compared to JBuilder or NetBeans/Forte, Eclipse lacks many J2EE-specific features but you can get similar features IBM's commercial versions of WebSphere Studio. Since I cannot end a column on Java development tools without mentioning some Java editors that sport many IDE-like features, I'll close with a quick list:

JEdit - http://itw.itworld.com/GoNow/a14724a59521a105852291a8Jext - http://itw.itworld.com/GoNow/a14724a59521a105852291a9J - http://itw.itworld.com/GoNow/a14724a59521a105852291a7

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