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Mike Milinkovich - Webby Mike Milinkovich, the Executive Director of the Eclipse Foundation

Ten years ago IBM announced a bold new strategy for its software development tools.  On November 5, 2010,  the New York Times reported that “Some I.B.M. Software Tools to Be Put in Public Domain” marking the beginning of the Eclipse open source community.  As the Executive Director of the Eclipse Foundation, I’ve been in the unique position of seeing firsthand how IBM’s Eclipse open source strategy has transformed the software industry.

What Eclipse has accomplished over the last 10 years is substantial. From the initial three open source projects, the Eclipse community has grown to over 270 different open source projects, containing well over 50 million lines of code, with over 1000 developers working on those projects.  In fact, Eclipse has become a shared software commons that is used by thousands of companies to build new software products.   In 2001, IBM estimated the value of their Eclipse R&D investment was $40 million. By 2011, over 70 companies have invested in Eclipse projects resulting in a total R&D investment of well over $800 million. IBM’s 2001 strategy for Eclipse has certainly resulted in a better way of building products.

Eclipse has demonstrated two key lessons to building software products: 1) Investing in well designed software platforms is an investment that pays off in terms of lower development cost, generating wider business partnership opportunities and protecting long-term investments. 2) Open collaboration with other companies can drive innovation.

Lesson #1: Investing in Software Platforms

At the core, Eclipse is a software platform that makes it easy to build and integrate software tools and applications.  Eclipse is most commonly known as a Java developer tool, but the Eclipse platform is also used by applications such as Lotus Notes and NASA’s Rover command and control software.  The Eclipse platform removes the need to duplicate or re-implement common functionality required by similar applications.  It also makes it very easy to add unique features to create new applications, such as industry specific products.

Eclipse has been successful because it is a software platform that anyone can use and extend. The Eclipse ecosystem is comprised of thousands of companies that build products and internal applications on top of Eclipse.  By some estimates IBM alone has over 800 products built on the Eclipse platform.   The reuse of the Eclipse platform has allowed IBM to be more efficient at building products.

Lesson #2:  Open Collaboration Can Drive Innovation

Eclipse is an open source community that is open to any individual or company.  These open source projects cover a wide range of new and innovative technologies, many not related to developers tools. It is our licensing and governance policies that have allowed Eclipse to create this community of open collaboration.

There are three key principles that established Eclipse as community for open collaboration:

  1. The technology at Eclipse is licensed under the open source Eclipse Public License (EPL).  This means any organization can use the technology royalty free in commercial products or internal applications.
  2. The Eclipse Foundation has been established as a not-for-profit, vendor-neutral steward of the community.  This means no organization has special status within Eclipse.  This is especially important if direct competitors are to work within an open community. At Eclipse, companies like Oracle, IBM, and SAP who compete in the commercial world collaborate on projects.
  3. All Eclipse projects are developed in the open.  This means the source code is available, bug tracking is public, project plans are published and decisions are made in the open. This allows users and adopters to understand the direction of the project and participate at different levels of commitment.

The result of this collaboration has been a software ecosystem that is shared by the entire software industry.  Companies, including IBM, utilize Eclipse technology to make commercial products that create commercial profit. These profits, in turn, spur more investment and development back into the Eclipse projects.

In 2001, IBM had a vision of how to build better software products.  The strategy they executed with Eclipse has effected the entire software industry.   Open software platforms and open collaboration were radical ideas ten years ago. Now they are conventional wisdom.

For more on Eclipse, click here.

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