Steal This Blog Entry

There’s been a healthy reaction to my blog entry Genius Steals, Marketing Homogenizes (JavaLobby responses). Perhaps the title was a tad provocative, but I think some people took “stealing” in its negative sense. “Genius Steals” is of course a sort of veiled compliment (if a slightly ironic one).

For the record, I’ve got absolutely no problem with different IDEs “borrowing” features from each other, and I agree that it’s necessary for a certain amount of that to happen in order for innovation to take place.

In his 1997 book, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes that creativity (which we can see as a parallel to innovation) is never a solitary achievement. Artists, writers, architects, them creative fellows, are fuelled by the cultural fashions of their era. Even the reactions of pundits and public after the event play a major part. A painting which is seen as mediocre or “strange” by one generation is hailed as a masterpiece by the next, increasing the painting’s “creativity”.

Artists stand on the shoulders of their predecessors; they build on previous work to keep progress moving along. It is of course the same with technological innovation; and of course it’s the same with IDEs.

A “free market” in which features can be borrowed from one IDE and taken several steps further in a rival IDE is a great thing.

However – and this is the thing – currently I think we’re just seeing rival IDEs borrowing features in a “me-too” kind of way, rather than in a “hey that’s great, let’s build on that!” kind of way. And there’s a lot of it happening – probably a bit more than is healthy. The case with JBuilder where they’re hitting the reset button and rebuilding the entire product based on the Eclipse codebase is quite extreme.

On a positive note, NetBeans has made so much progress in the last couple of years, it's barely recognizable from its earlier versions. The team has done a truly remarkable job bringing it back to the top and regaining developers' mindshare - and their respect, for that matter.

However, when a new release of NetBeans is announced, the bar by which it is judged appears to be how similar its feature-set (and the way those features operate) are to Eclipse. That just isn’t healthy; it’s almost as if the developer “public” wants their IDEs to be identical so that they can finally make the switch and not notice any real difference.

Perhaps the main rival IDEs will reach a plateau soon, where they’ve all essentially caught up with each other, and can begin striking out in different directions again. I hope that’s what happens; and when/if it does, that's when I believe we will start to see some serious innovation rather than the "me-too" feature race that we're seeing at the moment.

About the Author

Matt Stephens is a senior architect, programmer and project leader based in Central London. He co-wrote Agile Development with ICONIX Process, Extreme Programming Refactored, and Use Case Driven Object Modeling with UML - Theory and Practice.