Open Source Eclipse Turns 10: Mike Milinkovich Looks Back at a 'Novel Idea'

Eclipse Foundation Executive Director Mike Milinkovich shares with ADT how revolutionary open sourcing Eclipse was back in 2001, the success of Eclipse since and the impact the Eclipse project has had for the open source community in general.

It's hard to believe, but it has been a decade since the Eclipse platform was first made available under an open source software license. In November 2001, IBM open sourced an internal project focused on creating a common component framework for developers (and coughed up $40 million to get the ball rolling).

Of course, nothing was harder to believe back in 2001 than the idea that Big Blue would really let the code go with no strings attached. Skepticism was widespread until the Eclipse Foundation was created in January 2004. Even then, it wasn't until major IBM competitors, including BEA and Borland, signed up as strategic Foundation members that those worries were truly put to rest. Mike Milinkovich came on board as the Foundation's executive director that year. He was the first to take on the job and he's been at it ever since.

"You've got to give IBM a lot of credit," Milinkovich told me. "The Eclipse Foundation is a truly independent organization with a vendor-neutral governance model. And that has made all the difference."

The core team that developed Eclipse within IBM was actually acquired by the company when it bought Object Technology International (OTI) in 1996. OTI was the company behind the VisualAge IDEs for the Smalltalk and Java. So it's not surprising that the first killer Eclipse app was its Java IDE. To this day, when someone says "Eclipse," it's very often in that context. The Eclipse IDE rolled into a highly fragmented dev tools market and flattened it considerably almost overnight. The Foundation now claims about 65 percent of the Java IDE market, with more than 6 million users. The Foundation also argues that the consolidation of that market has been instrumental in the worldwide success and adoption of Java itself.

"If you think about the adoption of Java over the past ten years," Milinkovich said. "Java might not have seen the same adoption rates in places like India, China, and Brazil without the availability of a really good and free IDE. Eclipse can take a lot of credit as a key enabler for the Java adoption we've seen over the past decade."

The adoption of the Eclipse Java IDE was a very bottom-up process, says Ian Skerrett, the Foundation's marketing director. Codederos embraced it from the beginning.

"When I joined the Foundation there were all these stories about developers using Eclipse when they were supposed to be using the director-level, mandated IDEs," he said. "There were stories about developers quickly switching IDEs when the director walked by. They preferred to use Eclipse even though their company had spent a lot of money on a commercial product. There was a huge gap between what development manager thought their developers were using and what developers said they were using. That gap has gone away."

But Eclipse is much more than just a Java IDE. "The Java IDE was the killer app, yes, but it wasn't the definition of what Eclipse was, even at the beginning," Milinkovich said. "The strength of Eclipse in the tools space is the fact that it's an extensible platform that we've seen used as a base for a range of tools. You now find Eclipse-based tooling for almost every programming language out there."

In the past decade, contributors to the Eclipse project have produced an impressive variety of tools, from the Eclipse C/C++ IDE, which has become another standard dev tool in the embedded and real-time operating system market, to the Eclipse Mylyn project, a task and app lifecycle management (ALM) framework that is now a "hub" with more than 80 connectors integrating ALM solutions with the Eclipse developer's desktop.

The Eclipse Foundation currently counts just over a thousand committers working on 273 open source projects. The Eclipse ecosystem comprises millions of individuals and thousands of companies, universities, and research institutions. The Foundation estimates that the technologies developed within the Eclipse community are now worth more than $800 million.

It's fair to give at least some of the credit for those numbers to a unique Foundation innovation: its annual Release Train. This simultaneous, synchronized launch of Eclipse projects is one of a kind in the open source world. The first Eclipse Release Train, dubbed "Callisto," comprised 10 projects; the "Indigo" release last June included 62 projects and 46 million lines of code.

"It demonstrated to ISVs and the technology companies that adopt Eclipse as the basis for their products that an open source community can execute successfully and predictably," Milinkovich said. "That has had a major impact, in terms of demonstrating the utility of open source in general and how we do open source at Eclipse in particular, but it's also been enormously successful for our commercial ecosystem."

But in some ways the biggest impact of Eclipse, the community that develops it, and the Foundation that supports it, has been the shift of perception it has engendered about open source in general.

"Ten years ago, the notion that open source might be the best way for software vendors to collaborate was really a novel idea," Milinkovich said. "Now it's considered the norm. Eclipse demonstrated the advantages of collaboration in open source, even amongst fierce competitors. It's now the preferred way to move technology forward for industry platforms."

The Eclipse Foundation is celebrating the anniversary with a kickoff party at its EclipseCon Europe 2011 conference this Wednesday, November 2nd, and following up with regional Eclipse birthday parties around the world during the month of November. A list of events has been posted . If you're an Eclipse community member, the Foundation is also inviting you to add yourself to the Eclipse 10th Birthday Timeline.

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].