Happy Birthday Eclipse!

Eclipse is five years old today—or rather, Eclipse the open-source project is five years old. On November 7, 2001, IBM released the callow code it had been cuddling in its Object Technology International labs since the mid-1990s into the quirky meritocracy that is the open-source community.

It took the world a little while to decide that Big Blue would, in fact, not be pulling the strings of the Eclipse Consortium, but when it did, this not-named-to-piss-off-Sun-Microsystems tooling framework began capturing hearts and minds like an adorable newborn. Before long, it was riding its bike without training wheels, pulling girls' pigtails, and sending Java IDE vendors to the unemployment office.

''November 7, 2001, was the first day you could download the Eclipse code from the Eclipse.org website,'' said Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, when I talked with him last week. ''Something new came into the world that day, so we're calling it a birthday. 'Anniversary' would sound like we were celebrating some kind of marriage or partnership.''

The operative word there is ''celebrate.'' Ian Skerrett, director of marketing at the Eclipse Foundation, told me that there are now 32 Eclipse birthday parties scheduled in 15 countries this month. We're talking Austin, London, Ottawa, Bangalore, Delft, Munich, San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Singapore, and more. This worldwide party schedule reflects ''a truly global use of Eclipse,'' he said.

Locations, dates, and RSVP links can be found on the Eclipse Party Page.

Birthdays are a time for reflection in my family (and cake... lots of cake), so this seemed like an appropriate moment to reach out to some of the industry watchers, IT execs, and technologists I've talked with about Eclipse over the past five years, and to harass them into sharing their observations on the Eclipse phenomenon. I asked them about milestones, market impacts, and pivotal moments.

Milinkovich cited an interesting milestone. In March 2005, around the time of the EclipseCon 2005 event, the Eclipse Foundation scored five new strategic members with real industry heft: BEA, Borland, Computer Associates, Scapa Technologies, and Sybase. ''These were companies that competed head-to-head with IBM, who had seen Eclipse become independent, who had done the due diligence to confirm for themselves that Eclipse was truly independent,'' Milinkovich said. ''Their memberships were enormously important. The fact that they were willing to plunk down $250,000 a year to join the board, and then to propose top-level projects at Eclipse—well, it was a tipping point. It was clear then that the industry was going to rally around us.''

Shipping Eclipse 3.0 a year earlier was an important technical milestone. ''That was the release that moved Eclipse from its old plug-in architecture,'' Milinkovich says. ''That release was hand-in-glove with the first release of the Eclipse Rich Client Platform (RCP). That was when we really began moving away from a 100-focus as a tools platform.''

I also put the bite on Winston Damarillo, CEO of Simula Labs and an Eclipse Board member, who graciously responded to my email with this: ''In the last five years, the Eclipse Software Foundation has demonstrated the power of open-source disruption by providing high-quality software for what is now the majority of users in the IDE market. Moving forward, the real opportunity for Eclipse is in the standardization of foundation and processes that consistently deliver timely and high-quality software in order to propagate that community process to technologies beyond the IDE.''

Doug Gaff, an engineering manager for Wind River Workbench and project lead for the Eclipse Device Software Development Platform (DSDP) Project, commented on the impact of Eclipse on software development methodologies and ''anyone who builds tools.''

''IBM’s release of the Eclipse Platform, the creation of the original Consortium, and the subsequent creation of the Eclipse Foundation have fundamentally changed both the starting point and the development methodology companies use to build software,'' Gaff wrote to me in an email. ''The Eclipse Platform and the many projects built around it over the past five years give companies a wealth of base technology upon which they can differentiate their commercial value propositions. In short, tools vendors don’t build the basic technology anymore; they start at a higher level in the technology stack. Furthermore, tools vendors who choose to engage in Eclipse with contribution and sponsorship also modify their development methodology. Rather than just consume Eclipse Technology, these companies help produce it and influence its technical direction. This methodology makes Eclipse contribution part of a commercial strategy of commoditization and differentiation, which I believe more rapidly advances the state of the art.”

Be sure to check out Gaff's blog

Maher Masri, president of MyEclipse maker Genuitec, talked about Eclipse as a platform. ''Eclipse does so many different things, and it can be used in so many different ways, that it's just inaccurate to call it a development tool,'' he told me. ''As a rich client platform, it has the potential to invade industries in more ways than just as a high-productivity application. We've barely seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Eclipse. It's going to do for applications what the 1980s IBM motherboards did for the PC industry.''

Forrester Research analyst and Eclipse maven Michael Goulde weighed in with an observation on the impact of Eclipse on three aspects of software development: ''Eclipse has changed the software development industry in major ways, including changing how tools are built, how they are integrated, and how they are distributed,'' he said. ''In the course of doing this, some products have been rendered obsolete, but other products have been created that wouldn’t have been it weren’t for Eclipse. The choice of development tools has been made easier for development managers, but more importantly, the pace of innovation has been markedly increased as a result of building on top of the Eclipse base.''

From across the pond, British IT analyst Neil Ward-Dutton, of Macehiter Ward-Dutton, suggested that IBM didn't realize what it was doing when it open sourced the original Eclipse code. ''IBM had no idea, at the start, of the kind of momentum they'd create,'' he said. ''At the time it was a pretty random experiment; IBM had the desire to do something to ensure that it would have a counter to Microsoft's strong presence in the developer community, and it was desperate to ensure that people would have access to good non-Microsoft tools when developing in Java (remember J#?). But in truth, it's only been in the last 18-24 months that Eclipse has really moved its center of gravity away from IBM.''

Ward-Dutton's colleague, Jon Collins, couldn't resist throwing in his two cents: '''Developers are using Eclipse because it works, it's extensible, and it's free,'' he said. ''…Eclipse is the equivalent of developers around the globe helping each other to deliver better software.'

ZapThink senior analyst and founder Ron Schmelzer noted the tremendous impact of Eclipse, not just on the developer community, but startups. ''Any new development product or tool with a developer or programmatic-style interface now seems to utilize Eclipse as its IDE foundation,'' he said. ''Standardizing the development environment has made a lot of sense, and Eclipse's traction seems to be strong and growing.''

Doug Levin, CEO of Black Duck, Eclipse fan, and the apple of his mother's eye, offered kudos to the Foundation as a pioneer of a highly-effective open-source development model that reduces code fragmentation with a unified set of extensible, open frameworks. ''Building tools atop these frameworks reduces time-to-market, enabling companies like Black Duck to quickly reach a broad user community with innovative new products,'' he said. ''Black Duck, for example, was an early Eclipse user (since early 2003) in the development of our innovative product lines.''

I even managed to connect with Dan Roberts, Sun Microsystems's director of developer tools marketing, and relentlessly cheerful champion of the only IDE currently offering a significant alternative to the Eclipse dev tools (NetBeans). ''The Java Tools market has gone through several fundamental shifts over the years,'' he wrote in an email, ''and the shift to open source developer tools has created a healthy ecosystem of great tools offered at no cost for Java developers. The competition between the growing NetBeans ecosystem and Eclipse has made us both better, driving us to innovate faster in what has become a two/horse race for Java tools and platforms.''

For my money, the coolest thing the Eclipse community has done to date was an Eclipse Foundation project known as ''Callisto.'' It was the largest ever synchronized open-source project release. Ten (count 'em, ten!) Eclipse project updates, including BI and reporting tools, a modeling framework, a Web tools platform, test and performance tools, IDEs, and the latest version of the Eclipse tooling framework (3.2) itself—all taking a bow at the same time on the Eclipse download page. Whenever I think of Callisto, a little wow goes off in my head. (Or maybe I just partied too much in college.)

I'll give the last word to the guy with the party contacts: ''The nice thing about Eclipse is that it keeps getting better,'' said Ian Skerrett. ''The base technology has proven to be applicable to so many different types of software, so I think the next five years are going to be even more exciting.''