NetBeans 6.5 Beta Released

The NetBeans community recently released the beta version of the latest incarnation of its persistently popular open source IDE.

NetBeans 6.5 is a major update of version 6.1, incorporating a new IDE-wide QuickSearch shortcut, a more user-friendly interface, automatic Compile on Save and other changes.

It is expected provide full support for all Java editions (Java SE, Java EE, Java ME) and striking range of languages, including Java, C/C++, Groovy, Grails, Ruby on Rails, JavaScript and, with this release, PHP. The 6.5 version also comes with enhanced support for several Web frameworks, including Hibernate, Spring, JSF, JSF CRUD generator, and the Java Persistence API.

A full list of enhancements in this update is available on the NetBeans 6.5 project page here.

NetBeans is, of course, written in Java, but it would be tough to call this a Java IDE, given the range of languages it now supports. "Realistically, 90 percent of the people who are using NetBeans are probably using it for Java development,"commented Gartner analyst Mark Driver. "But because of its support for these other languages, NetBeans has become more like a workbench, along the lines of Eclipse. And I'd say it's one of the top two Ruby IDEs on the market, and has been for a while. They're making a stronger play against Eclipse in that respect."

With the market-transforming arrival of the open source Eclipse framework a few years ago, many industry watchers expected NetBeans to fade away, as other Java IDEs have done. But the tool set continues to stand as perhaps the Eclipse alternative, Driver said.

Sun Microsystems, NetBeans project's primary corporate sponsor, has built a product with more "fit and finish out of the box," commented Driver, and that appeals to a lot of developers. "Not everyone is excited about downloading and assembling Eclipse plug-ins," he said.

Forrester analyst Jeffrey S. Hammond counts himself among those looking forward to test-driving NetBeans 6.5 as a Ruby development environment. "As far as I'm concerned, we're still wide open for good Ruby tooling," he said. "I don't see anyone out there yet who has taken that market, and there are large numbers of Ruby developers still doing everything on the command line, or even in TextMate. They're ready for some great tools to support them."

The NetBeans community (and Sun) has done a good job of adapting its namesake IDE to the way developers are designing systems today, Hammond said. "It used to be that you were a Java shop, a .NET shop, or maybe both," he said. "But the world isn't that simple anymore. Yeah, there are still lots of Java shops out there, but there are also JavaScript shops and PHP shops. Microsoft reckons that there are 8 million PHP developers out there worldwide. That's a lot of developers that are essentially up for grabs."

Today, most Java developers have more than one IDE on their machines, Hammond observed. In a survey he conducted last year, he found that only about one in 10 Java developers said they were using a single IDE.

Not surprisingly, Hammond counts the new PHP support in NetBeans 6.5 as a major advance for this tool set.

"The NetBeans community is playing catch-up right now with PHP support in this version," Driver said. "But there isn't a solid Ruby solution in Eclipse today, so you've got to give them props for looking ahead of the curve on that one."

Even with the 700,000 users the community claims, NetBeans can't compete head-to-head with the massive Eclipse user base and sprawling ecosystem surrounding it, Driver commented. But it will, nevertheless, continue to provide developers with a solid second-tier choice. "NetBeans isn't going away any time soon," he said.

"If they were competing on the basis of how much money you make on an IDE, NetBeans would certainly be dead," observed Hammond. "But vendors provide IDEs today to capture the hearts and minds of developers. That's a lesson that Microsoft learned years ago: Win the developers, win the platform battle. Sun has come to that same conclusion, and they're going to continue to invest in great developer tools, even though they don't make money on them."

NetBeans is primarily marketed as a development environment, but it has also evolved in recent years to offer what the community calls an "application platform." In this role, NetBeans is essentially a desktop app that provides a set of reusable components (window management, menus, settings, storage, update manager, file access) to give developers a jumpstart on their projects with modular versions of common services.

The NetBeans project comprises the IDE and an application platform designed to be used as a generic framework for building virtually any kind of application. The project became Sun Microsystems's first sponsored open source project in June 2000 with the launch of the Web site.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].