Eclipse Galileo is out now. It is remarkable: 33 projects and 24 million lines of code, according to the press release. Perhaps the two biggest features in this release are support for Mac Cocoa - in order words, proper Mac support - and PHP development tools. All open source, all free.
Unsurprisingly, Eclipse appears to be the most popular Java development tool, and if you extend that to IDEs based on Eclipse, its dominance is overwhelming. Its obvious rival, Netbeans, has improved greatly in the last few years and may be better for some purposes; but it looks unlikely to catch Eclipse, and the impact of Oracle's impending acquisition of Sun is unknown.
Eclipse has also influenced other development tools, forcing vendors to offer more for free and to improve their extensibility. You can see this effect in Visual Studio, for example, with its Express editions and both technical and licensing enhancements to its extensibility in recent times. Microsoft may say that this would have happened anyway, but I am doubtful. Eclipse changed the game.
Still, there is something that I've always found intriguing about Eclipse, which may be a weakness in its business model (if a free platform can have such a thing). I put this to Executive Director Mike Milinkovich and he responded robustly, which I like because it usually means I've asked a good question.
Eclipse is a a tools platform, not an IDE, and member companies build their own products based on the shared platform. Examples are Adobe with Flex Builder, IBM with Rational Application Developer, Zend with Zend Studio, and Embarcadero with JBuilder. Each of these companies has a dilemma. The more they invest in the shared platform, the more they collectively benefit by getting features that they do not have to build on their own; but the better the shared platform gets, the more difficult it is to differentiate and sell their commercial products. I asked Milinkovich about this tension and he interrupted me:
That's not a tension, that's exactly the way Eclipse is designed to work. That is the Eclipse business model. Our licensing model and our business model are geared around the notion that we're building an open source platform which then people build products on top and differentiate in the marketplace based on what they do on the proprietary side.
Although Milinkovich says it is "not a tension", Embarcadero CEO Wayne Williams complained about this very thing, telling me that IBM is now pulling back from investment in Eclipse and reserving the best new features for its own products - which, whatever the truth of the matter, IBM has every right to do.
An additional factor is the difference between vendors like Google, which has an Eclipse plug-in for App Engine, but is only concerned to promote its platform; and those like Embarcadero whose business is selling tools. Vendors like Google can improve Eclipse without any threat to their business.
Eclipse is wildly popular, but came last in a recent Software Development Platform survey of developer satisfaction by Evans Data. To be fair, all the products won a reasonably good rating, so we should not infer that Eclipse is poor; it is not. I can understand, though, why some member companies may be happy to see Eclipse rated as good, but not too good, giving them space for their Eclipse-based products; and if this is the case, it may limit the extent to which Eclipse is likely to improve.
Hope for green shoots of economic recovery, especially within the IT sector, are likely to be further bolstered by the Government's Digital Britain Report, which has pledged to invest 23m to encourage smaller businesses invest in IT in order to help improve their business.
As the potential demand for IT workers, both permanent and contract, looks set to reflect a small rise in demand, candidates may find themselves in a slightly stronger position when it comes to negotiating terms than they have been in the recent past. If so, it's important to keep a few points in mind:
Firstly, research. If negotiating money, candidates need to be aware of the current jobs market - what's available and how reasonable their current rate is. This may have changed in recent weeks and months so be sure to keep a constant eye on the market.
Secondly it's important to be sensitive to your employer's current state. If the organisation has or is looking to make redundancies, or has posted poor financial figures recently, it may be unreasonable to even approach a discussion about higher pay rates.
Also, candidates should look at their skills set and their experience and gauge this against the current jobs market and their colleagues in similar positions. Be clear about your skills and qualifications and your experience within an industry; it's important to be absolutely sure how these benchmark you amongst others in your specialisation.
Finally, it's important to maintain a sense of perspective. The Government investment will certainly be the first helpful step on the road to recovery, but it is, after all, just that - a first step. Employers are still likely to be cautious when it comes to making new hires and deciding what financial commitments they are willing to take on, so be willing to compromise where necessary.
Question: which is best for cross-platform, managed code using a runtime such as Java, .NET, or Flash, or is it native code? When Java arrived in 1996, Sun promoted write-once-run-everywhere as one of its key benefits. The arrival of just-in-time compilers for all the runtimes mentioned above removes many performance concerns. So is managed code the best solution?
My assumptions about this were challenged when I spoke to Embarcadero's CEO Wayne Williams last week. His company is the one that now owns Delphi and C++ Builder, the RAD software development tools, after acquiring Borland's Codegear division last year. Williams told me that taking Delphi and C++ Builder cross-platform is now the top priority for the team working on those products. Concerning native code, he said: "It's crystal clear. If you want a small, fast, GUI-rich application, and you want to target the popular platforms, there's only one game in town." That means at least x86 code for Windows, Mac and Linux, and he added, "there's no reason mobile devices shouldn't be on that roadmap as well."
What's wrong with Java then? "There's always been two approaches to target multiple platforms. One is interpreted, where you shield the code the developer is writing from those differences. The Virtual Machine is responsible for that, and if you want to add another platform, it's all centralised. It's easier, but the result is poor, it's a least common denominator approach.
"It's a bigger investment and it's more difficult to cross-compile, where you natively target these platforms, but the end result is much better. You're running true native code with full access to whatever hardware there is on that platform."
It was like going back in time: I recall similar arguments about Java back in the nineties. Since then, we've had not only JIT compilers but also huge increases in hardware performance. Is Williams living in the past?
Before dismissing what he says, it's worth noting that native code has never gone away. I use cross-platform native code applications all the time, from the SQLite database engine to the Audacity sound editor, and I enjoy their small size and fast performance. Over at Google, the Chrome team is hard at work delivering a new web browser, and it is mostly written in C++. Most of Windows is written in C++, despite Microsoft's commitment to .NET; and Java is an afterthought in Apple's OS X.
Although hardware performance has improved, the increasing numbers of mobile devices with constrained resources is a counter-balance to the idea that hardware takes care of inefficient code; and although managed code is fine for many business applications, it's hard to quibble with Williams' contention above that "If you want a small, fast, GUI-rich application, and you want to target the popular platforms, there's only one game in town."
There is another argument for managed code, which is that applications are quicker to write and safer to run when they are under the control of a runtime virtual machine. That is generally true as well. Still, Delphi does a great job of hiding the complexity of native code development. It may be just a little anachronistic, but if Embarcadero successfully deliver a cross-platform Delphi compiler, I think there will be plenty of take-up.
Williams says we may see cross-platform Delphi as soon as next year.
There is currently a real need for businesses executives at the top end of large and complex organisations to understand exactly what's happening on the lower levels and one of the best ways they can access this information is through Business Intelligence (BI) tools.
In recent times BI systems have become increasingly sophisticated, which combined with the economic downturn, has lead to a huge increase in the number of businesses and organisations choosing to implement these systems to increase profit margins wherever possible.
BI offers the ability to analyse in great detail exactly what's happening in a business and where cost can be cut. For example, many organisations rely on multiple databases containing a variety of business-critical data - orders, sales information, contacts, supplier, invoicing information and much more. Skilled Business Intelligence workers are able to develop applications in which data can pooled into a data warehouse, from which organisations can run a variety of reports, build data relationships and pull out relevant information that they need.
Keeping on top of corporate data is integral to running a successful organisation and we're finding that many big companies are investing time, funds and resources in BI technology, BI consultancy and developing in-house skills to best analyse the data they have at their disposal. Even smaller establishments and companies are seeing the value of recruiting individuals with specialist skills in this area. Some organisations choose to enlist BI expertise to set up a system and train existing employees to create an internal team responsible for BI.
As a result, it's unlikely that the need for BI will reduce in the short-term as companies are always likely to analyse their operations. As such, all information skills, technologies, applications and practices used to help a business acquire a better perception of their current position will continue to be desirable.
BI is an area of expertise that could help to build a long-lasting and rewarding career in IT and for candidates who think it might be the right fit for them, there are certainly many opportunities out there to be taken.