It’s been five years since IBM launched Eclipse as an open-source project. The technology had been incubating inside Big Blue since the late 1990s as a next-generation Java IDE, but IBM’s announcement that it was open-sourcing Eclipse, on Nov. 7, 2001, set the platform on the path to super-accelerated growth.

Today, Eclipse is second only to Microsoft’s Visual Studio in adoption, and has surpassed Sun’s NetBeans and Borland’s JBuilder in the Java space. IBM’s commitment to Eclipse was further demonstrated by its willingness to divest itself of its intellectual property and form the independent Eclipse Foundation in February 2004. The unprecedented moves toward open source and open governance launched Eclipse into orbit.

That doesn’t mean that the battle’s over, and just because my company produces products for Eclipse developers (EclipseWorld and Eclipse Review) doesn’t give me a one-sided view of the IDE market.

Specifically, NetBeans is a technically excellent platform, with a cohesion and fit-and-finish that Eclipse currently lacks. In that regard, NetBeans is like Visual Studio, because it’s dominated by a single company and led by one development team with a singular vision. By contrast, Eclipse is packed with features and functionality, but it’s designed by a committee of peers. Talented and devoted, yes, but it’s a committee nonetheless.

If you haven’t checked out the latest NetBeans, you should; release 5.5, which came out recently (Oct. 30) is impressive, specifically with improvements to its GUI builder. While Eclipse has similar capabilities, you need third-party solutions to really make it work. NetBeans gets it right, straight out of the box, in so many ways.

Where Sun has fallen short is with its partner programs; unlike Eclipse or Visual Studio, the NetBeans programs haven’t gained traction, and there’s a dearth of third-party support. I could go on at length about why Microsoft and the Eclipse Foundation have been successful, and Sun has not, but that’s a blog topic for another day.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick