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Will Sun Microsystems Inc. join the Eclipse open-source Java development platform effort?

Sources close to the company said despite Sun’s official decline of an invitation to join Eclipse last month, the company is still looking to join and may be closer now than ever, as the Eclipse Consortium is on the verge of transitioning to the Eclipse Foundation and ratifying a new board—a process that is slated to begin as early as next week at the EclipseCon 2004 conference in Anaheim, Calif.

Read “Eclipse Platform Ready to Forge Its Own Path.”

“Given the removal of business obstacles, Sun would be in there [the Eclipse organization] in a flash,” said a source close to Sun. The source compared the situation between Eclipse and Sun, which has its own NetBeans open-source application development platform effort, as more akin to the situation involving the GNOME and KDE open-source Linux desktops.

Check out “KDE, GNOME Both Needed.”

Earlier this month, James Gosling, a Sun fellow and vice president of the company, told reporters during a press call that Sun was still considering joining Eclipse and that talks were ongoing.

According to sources, Sun has promised to pay “a king’s ransom” and to make considerable concessions, but the Eclipse group is refusing to relent on one or two key issues.

In a recent interview with eWEEK, Skip McGaughey, chairman of Eclipse, said there will be two levels of strategic partners in the new Eclipse Foundation, which must commit developers and pay up to a maximum of $250,000 to assume this level of membership.

In addition, McGaughey said members of the organization will have to commit to providing a commercial product that supports Eclipse within 12 months of joining.

This point, analysts and observers said, is likely a major sticking point for Sun, which has invested heavily in NetBeans and would essentially have to abandon that work to focus on an Eclipse-based technology.

“Unless Sun had been secretly working on a product on their competitor’s platform for some time—as likely as Microsoft making Office for Solaris—they’d be unlikely to be able to meet that timeframe,” said an industry source who requested anonymity.

Next page: Java tools vendors should “just get along.”

Mike Gilpin, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., said: “I don’t think that it’s in Sun’s broader interest to fragment the Java tools community. Leaving aside the question of ‘who fragmented first,’ I think the various vendors in the Java tools space should ‘just get along.’ It will serve all their broader interests in the long run to merge the JTC and Eclipse and work in a unified manner against their main competitor, Microsoft.”

“For now, Sun is demanding that IBM support the NetBeans framework as the price for Sun joining Eclipse,” said John Rymer, another Forrester analyst. “That’s a nonstarter with IBM. So they’re stuck. The next thing to happen in this story, I think, will be the formation of the Eclipse Foundation and the separation of Eclipse governance from IBM. That is scheduled for early February. The following three to six months will tell whether or not the Eclipse Foundation will change things to make its technology more beneficial to Sun. And I think Sun will re-evaluate.”

Should Sun join Eclipse? “Ideally, yes,” Rymer said.

“It would be great to have Sun and IBM on the same foundation for tools,” Rymer added. “But in the real world, Sun gets very little real advantage from adopting Eclipse. Sun’s tools are deeply tied to NetBeans, and so support of Eclipse doesn’t really get Sun much technically except a huge engineering hit for migration from one platform to the next. Because IBM and Sun compete more often than they cooperate in the field, support of Eclipse also wouldn’t get Sun much in the way of business benefits [access to IBM accounts]. Sun is in the midst of trying to rejuvenate NetBeans and so is not culturally disposed to support Eclipse either. My view is that having multiple competing frameworks is not a bad thing for Java. Choice has always been one of the values offered by the Java community.”

Jeff Anders, group manager for Sun’s development tools business, said there are some things Sun could gain from being involved with Eclipse, but many of those gains may be realized through the recently formed Java Tools Community (JTC), with which he would like to see Eclipse become involved.

“There is some good technology there, some good ideas we could learn from,” Anders said. One possible benefit of Sun joining forces with Eclipse would be “we could go to the JCP [Java Community Process] with a united voice.”

Next page: Peace offering between SWT and Swing.

Meanwhile, a source close to Sun said: “One of the productive things about Sun joining Eclipse would be a peace offering between SWT [Standard Widget Toolkit] and Swing. Another good thing would be a cross-fertilization of good ideas between Eclipse and NetBeans.”

SWT and Swing are dueling Java GUI libraries. SWT is the IBM-backed library that is part of the Eclipse platform, and Swing is Sun’s technology and part of the Java 2 Standard Edition platform.

“There is no fundamental hostility between Sun and Eclipse,” said a source close to Sun.

McGaughey said “an invitation is open and there is dialogue going on” even now about Sun joining Eclipse, and it will be up to the new board to decide on the next moves regarding any outstanding negotiations.

“I know conversations are still going on,” said Mike Taylor, president and chief executive of Instantiations Inc., of Portland, Ore., an Eclipse member. “Sun made an announcement that they weren’t going to join immediately, but I remain optimistic that down the road, in the not too distant future, Eclipse and Sun will get together.”

Instantiations’ business strategy is evidence that Eclipse has taken on a world of its own and spawned business opportunities for smaller companies, but also that there is room for competing toolsets. Instantiations produces a suite of integrated tools for Eclipse developers.

“We made a decision to commit to the Eclipse platform,” Taylor said. “The kind of tools we do, we want to go deep and native. … The JTC is not very interesting to us because we’ve already made our decision to go deep and native on Eclipse.”

Sun joining Eclipse would go a long way toward uniting two of the leading forces in Java, but BEA Systems Inc., another Java leader, has made no indication that it is considering joining.

Simon Phipps, Sun’s chief technology evangelist, is scheduled to speak next week at the EclipseCon conference in what show organizers said appears to be one of the most anticipated talks of the event.

Novell Inc. last week at the LinuxWorld conference in New York announced its plans to join Eclipse to deliver a common tooling strategy for Novell developers going forward and to provide a consistent platform for building, testing and debugging applications across the Novell product line.