Eclipse Eclipsed?

The origins of Eclipse are almost comical. Five years ago, a dispute between IBM Corp and the Java Community Process (JCP) over a bunch of measly GUI widgets or controls spawned a major schism that continues to divide the Java tools community to this day.

Obviously that was all but an excuse. IBM chafed under Sun’s dominance of the Java Community Process (JCP) and wanted to create a new center of gravity. It seized on perceptions that the JCP’s mission was growing too diffuse and its processes too bureaucratic.

Exhibit One: The complexity of the original Enterprise Java Beans (EJB) spec reflected a creature that could only have been designed by committee — one that was so busy listening to itself that it lost touch with the developer community it was addressing.

Five years on, Eclipse has become the Java world’s de facto response to Microsoft Visual Studio. As for EJBs, their complexity spawned Spring, Hibernate, and a slew of kinder, gentler open source alternatives, which in turn drove the JCP to simplify its act.

At its annual conference last week, Eclipse patted itself on the back to show how far it’s come. Over the past three years, membership has tripled while projects have quadrupled. More importantly, while we used to associate Eclipse with its IDE, today it is also developing tooling for SOAs (Service-Oriented Architectures), Application Lifecycle Management (ALM), embedded devices, and more recently, dual rich client paths encompassing conventional operating systems plus a new initiative for Ajax.

Eclipse’s scope creep provides evidence, not only that IBM has accomplished its mission of moving the axis of influence away from the JCP, but that the organization might risk finding itself spread too thin just like the JCP.

Oracle’s announcement that it wants to turn TopLink, a 10-year old product that become its implementation of the Java Persistence API (of Java EE 5), over to Eclipse, is proof that the organization is now planting its stake in run time, in addition to development time. Ironically, that point is reinforced by the fact that Oracle is not moving its JDeveloper Java IDE to Eclipse.

Colleague Dana Gardner characterized this as a watershed that Eclipse was eclipsing the JCP. “It seems to me that this is indication of a defection,” he blogged, noting that Oracle originally used Sun’s Glassfish Java appserver open source project as the host for TopLink development. “If Oracle is now a top-tier member of Eclipse (as it has now become), then the role and influence of Java — as a technology set and community — must be fast waning,” he concluded.

So with Eclipse spreading its wings, we thought it logical to ask Ian Skerrett, who heads marketing for Eclipse, as to what exactly is Eclipse’s mission, and where it would draw the line (every organization has draw a boundary someplace). He defined it as the development of a plug-in model and said that the IDE just happened to present the first opportunity for proving the concept. But he drew a blank as to what areas Eclipse would not traipse.

Nonetheless, we’re sensing that Eclipse is starting to hit a few walls.

For instance, with Eclipse member Red Hat’s JBoss announcement last week that it would host the Exadel web and Ajax client development tools on its own Jboss.org site indicates that the open source community does not necessarily want Eclipse to become all things Java (Red Hat’s rationale was over licensing: it uses GPL, rather than the Apache license that’s commonplace at Eclipse).

Or as Daryl Taft reported last week, the same might be true for Ajax, where some Eclipse members are leery about having the group steer IDE development. As we’ve noted previously, the Ajax world is much like a herd of cats and may resist a preemptory move from above. For now, Eclipse is hedging its bets, with executive director Mike Milinkovich himself also serving on the steering committee of the adjoining OpenAjax Alliance.

Eclipse was founded at least in part as response to the JCP’s lack of focus. Yet, if Eclipse continues on the path of being all plug-ins to all people, it risks the same fate.