Freed V: Eclipse

On 5 November 2001, IBM sent out a press release announcing a donation of $40 million worth of tools to the Open Source community. The press release made it clear that this was all about some sort of application used for Java programming, but in real life most of the hacker community, or the IT business at large, had never heard of IBM's Eclipse.

A number of reasonably good programming environments already existed for the Java market, and IBM had realized that this made its own Java programming environment - at that point not yet called Eclipse - a less than sensible investment. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with the IBM toolset, but nor was it significantly ahead of its competition either. Which meant it would probably never replace the competition. Indeed, there was a risk that things would go the other way and IBM's offering would be superseded by a competitor's product.

However, IBM didn't want to give up its programming tool, as it was an irreplaceable part of the IBM portfolio - its main products being an expensive Unix and Linux server, the DB2 database and the Websphere Java application server. It would be hard to sell clients an application server if at the same time there wasn't also a tool for programming the application components for the server. Getting the programming tool from a third party - such as Sun or Borland - didn't appeal to IBM. That would mean spending money outside the company; and also, IBM wouldn't want to end up being way too dependent upon the unpredictable quirks of companies like Borland-Inprise-Inprise/Borland-Borland/Inprise-Borland.

In other words, an interesting situation. IBM had to keep developing Eclipse; yet, financially, investing in it was a bad idea. The solution, of course, was Open Source.

IBM had already grasped the idea of Linux and Open Source before they released Eclipse. While many other businesses in the IT sector saw the distribution of programs for free as a dire threat to their own existence, IBM had understood that even when people had switched to Linux there would still be plenty of work for IBM to do. In fact, IBM already had experience of Linux, and that experience had shown them that clients bought as many IBM servers as ever and paid just as much for them, even when they ran on Linux. In fact, now that the IBM servers were running on Linux, even more people were buying them. The only difference to the old Unix servers was that the development of Linux didn't rest solely on IBM. In other words, labour costs went down while revenue went up!

As news of Eclipse, and knowledge of what it really was, spread it gathered more developers and a lot of users. Today, it can be described as the best and most popular Java development environment available. Which means it very quickly became a success story; much faster than, say, OpenOffice or Mozilla. In addition to Java, it now has modules for C- and C++ programming, as well as many other uses, such as programming in Python. Once again, the Open Source development model has shown its strength and wealth and outperformed all competitors.

Where OpenOffice satisfied a need in the Linux world, the situation was different with Eclipse. There was no lack of Java programming tools - in fact, there were too many of them! They were all reasonably good, but none of them came close to the brilliance of today's Eclipse. The existence of so many different tools was a problem for all companies working in the Java market, as the programs did not follow any agreed standard and caused unnecessary training costs, etc. When all parties gathered around one common and open solution, less effort quickly gave better results.

Before Eclipse, most Open Source projects had been collaborations which centred around a single private individual - such as Linus Torvalds - or were administered by non-profit umbrella organizations founded by individuals - like the Apache Software Foundation. Mozilla and OpenOffice were still administered by their old parent companies, but they weren't collaborations between companies, as the participants were mostly individual programmers. IBM, however, had gathered an impressive group of 150 collaborating companies behind Eclipse, and their first press release mentioned in particular Red Hat, Rational and TogetherSoft. Soon more businesses joined, among them Oracle and Borland. It's encouraging to see that businesses can actually be successfully involved in Open Source projects at an organizational level.

Verdict: The incomplete Eclipse was dropped into the lap of the Open Source community like a bolt from the blue and quickly became a very functional and versatile Java programming tool which outperformed its numerous competitors. IBM is the one old IT business that has adopted the rules of the Open Source world better than the rest, which is why Big Blue is doing swimmingly alongside the Linux penguin.

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