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The Eclipse Foundation Turns 10: An Interview with Mike Milinkovich

It was during a break in the action long ago at the 2004 JavaOne conference that I found myself sitting in the W Hotel restaurant in San Francisco across from an earnest Canadian dude whose name I mispronounced twice during the interview, as he explained how IBM would really (no, really) keep its Big, Blue mitts off its relatively recently open-sourced, Java-based tooling platform, code-named Eclipse.

"They'll be involved, of course," said Mike Milinkovich, the first (and to date, only) Executive Director of the then-spanking-new Eclipse Foundation, "but as a member of the community only, without undue influence. With a little time, we'll prove that. We want people to have confidence in this technology."

I was skeptical (so was just about everybody), but IBM kept its distance, and the budding Eclipse community bloomed and spread far and wide over the next decade, virtually terraforming the IDE landscape in the process. Milinkovich and the Foundation cultivated that growth with vendor-neutral governance practices and what proved to be one of the most effective models for community open-source development.

Today, the Eclipse Foundation marks its 10th anniversary, and Milinkovich took the time to put up with my questions yet again. I reminded him of our first meeting back when he'd been on the job for about a month.

"Looking back, I'd have to say that credit for a big part of the community's early success should go to IBM, which did an exemplary job of setting Eclipse free," he said. "We became the first open source organization to show that real competitors could collaborate successfully within the community. When BEA and Borland joined in 2005 as strategic members, they effectively validated our claim of vendor neutrality. Both were important, but BEA in particular was a fierce IBM competitor at that time. Having BEA demonstrate that it was comfortable enough with our governance model to participate was a major milestone."

The impact of the Eclipse Foundation over the next decade is hard to overstate. When IBM released Eclipse to open source in November 2001, it was essentially a version of its WebSphere Studio Workbench, which the company then characterized as "a kind of universal tool platform -- an open, extensible IDE for anything, but nothing in particular." That release was a strategic move, Milinkovich said, to ensure that the fragmented Java tools market would have sufficient market share to compete with Microsoft's Visual Studio franchise.

"Given that there are now effectively two major tooling ecosystems -- Eclipse and Visual Studio -- I think it's fair to say, mission accomplished," Milinkovich said.

But perhaps more importantly, under the auspices of the Foundation, that "open, extensible IDE for anything, but nothing in particular" became the jumping off point for a remarkably diverse community responsible for, as the organization puts it, "a wide range of technologies, including rich client platforms; modeling; Web-based development tools; Java server runtimes; and frameworks, protocols and tools for the Internet of Things."

That most people still think of Eclipse as primarily Java tech continues to vex Milinkovich.

"If there's one thing I wish people would recognize, it's that with projects like Vertex and Jetty and Orion and EclipseLink and Equinox and on and on, there is an enormous variety of technology coming from the Eclipse community," he said.

Since the Foundation was established, it has grown from 50 members engaged with 19 projects to 205 members engaged with to 247 projects, including the totally-not-Java CDT Project, which provides a fully functional C and C++ IDE that has become the de facto standard development environment of embedded systems.

The foundation has also been responsible for a set of best practices for open-source IP management that has led to "pervasive use of Eclipse open source technology in commercial products," the organization pointed out in a statement.

But in my view, the Foundation's greatest accomplishment so far is its annual Release Train. This simultaneous, synchronized launch of Eclipse projects was one of a kind in the open source world when it was announced nine years ago. The first Eclipse Release Train, dubbed "Callisto," comprised 10 projects; the "Kepler" release last June included 71 projects comprising 58 million lines of code written by 420 committers in 54 supporting organizations.

"I agree that this is a big one," Milinkovich said. "The Release Train allowed us to show that it's possible to have a vendor neutral, open-source organization predictably ship commercial-ready software that companies can adopt in their products. And we did it in a way that provides for an explicit role for corporate members, while also making sure that the community is still represented in the governance. It's been a huge part of our success."

Much of the credit for the Foundation's efficacy should go to its highly professional staff, Milinkovich insisted. He also insisted on naming everybody during our interview, but I'm just going to do it with a link to the staff page.

Milinkovich has been in the catbird seat for an awful lot of changes for developers, and I asked him what stood out for him as the most significant in the past decade.

"One of the things that has completely changed over the past ten years is the way technology is being procured," he said. "If you don't have an open-source offering that provides for frictionless adoption by developers -- where they don't have to involve procurement to try your technology -- you basically can't sell. There are still a few exceptions to that, but when was the last time you heard somebody say that they were going to do a six-month proof of concept, hire two consultants, and get a vendor to come in and show them how the technology works? Ten years ago, that's how it was done. There has been a fundamental shift in that process that I think has put developers in the driver seat in selecting the technologies for the applications being deployed."

The Foundation issued a press release today that included a comment from Stephen O'Grady, Principal Analyst at Red Monk, that summarizes the importance of Eclipse Foundation pretty well, and bears including here: "Having begun its life as a bold experiment in corporate open source contribution, the Eclipse Foundation has, over the past decade evolved from a focused Java development project to a diverse community supporting a wide array of languages and needs. From browser based development to the Internet of Things, Eclipse is always willing to rethink its role and adapt itself to the fast changing industry around it."

Many happy returns of the day.

Posted by John K. Waters on February 3, 2014