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If you're looking to create an alternative to Microsoft's Visual Studio .Net, you may be able to do so in just four easy steps. First, look outside the United States for a small software tools company, preferably in a country that starts with the letter C. Second, buy said company. Third, build a Website and release some of the software you've acquired under an open source license. Fourth, wait for developers to come a-flocking.
At least, you might get that impression from watching the way Sun Microsystems and IBM have spent tens of millions of dollars in two separate high-profile efforts to court Java developers. Sun arrived at the open source dance in 2000, basing its NetBeans project on code it obtained from the Czech company NetBeans Ceska Republika a.s. NetBeans is a development tools platform on top of which vendors and open source projects can build Java tools. Sun's Forte product line is built on top of NetBeans.
IBM followed suit a year later, releasing software it acquired with its purchase of the Canadian company Object Technology International (OTI) under the project name Eclipse. Written in Java, Eclipse is an ambitious attempt to create a modular development platform that all kinds of developer tools for all kinds of languages can eventually use. IBM is building all of its WebSphere development tools (see "Sidebar 1: Eclipse, VisualAge, WebSphere: What Does It All Mean?") upon Eclipse, but the company aspires to build an ecology of products -- even those competing with IBM -- upon what it hopes to become an industry-standard platform.
Eclipse's release caused a buzz in the IT industry, in part because IBM spent 0 million on the code it eventually gave away, in part because of Big Blue's partnerships with some high-profile companies (Rational Software, Borland Software, Red Hat), and, finally, in part because the move so thoroughly aroused the ire of IBM's major Java partner, Sun Microsystems.
But why is IBM releasing Eclipse? And what do companies like Sun and IBM hope to gain by tripping over themselves to give away free software? "Each of them believes there's something to be gained by being perceived as the sponsor of a full-featured Java development environment," observes Rick Ross, president of JavaLobby, a Java developer advocacy group. In Ross's estimation, the position of a popular Java development platform's acknowledged steward can translate into sales of commercial development tools, professional services, and servers -- areas in which Sun and IBM are fierce competitors. "These companies are not funding these initiatives out of the goodness of their hearts, because companies don't have hearts," he adds.
What they do have is money. And no doubt IBM has put considerable resources behind Eclipse. OTI project manager Marc Erickson says his group has about 160 developers working on the Eclipse platform, whose code can be traced back to a Smalltalk development environment called Envy, which OTI turned into VisualAge for Java almost four years ago. Erickson says that his developers are also testers, since they're all using Eclipse to develop IBM's VisualAge product line.