IBM tries to eclipse .Net with open source

The recent launch of IBM's Office application suite is part of a broader challenge to Microsoft's entire .Net development framework, say industry experts

On Monday, IBM announced it was launching a Web-based software suite that would offer Microsoft Office-like applications. But unlike Microsoft's Office, IBM's Lotus Workplace software is designed to be used over the Internet and is accessible from systems running Windows, Mac, Linux, Unix as well as handheld devices.

Ian Wesley, IBM research director at Ovum, said that the new software is a way for IBM to offer its existing Lotus customers an upgrade path and is not a direct attack on Microsoft's Office suite.

"Keeping the installed base is the first thing you do. It will bring Lotus Domino, Notes and other Lotus users into the next generation technology. In practice it is nothing to do with having a go at Microsoft Office, that is just a side effect," said Wesley.

And although that may be true in the near term, the development framework that helped IBM realise the Lotus Workplace may end up having more impact on the future of Microsoft's .Net development framework than it ever could to Microsoft's 90 percent market share of the office productivity software market.

The cross-platform user interface for Lotus Workplace was created using a subset of the Eclipse development and operational management tooling platform that IBM gave to the open-source community three years ago.

Eclipse has to potential to enable a single console, development model, and modelling environment. This allows organisations to break down the barriers between separate IT functions such as development, quality assurance, load testing, and operational management. Lotus Workplace applies this to end user productivity services as well.

It can be used in virtually any environment, including Windows, Linux, Unix or Mac and has been embraced by the global development community. It also enjoys the backing of industry heavyweights such as SuSE, Red Hat, Borland, Fujitsu and IBM.

Eclipse was designed to be modular and to allow a "plug in" approach to application lifecycle tooling. Unlike Visual Studio .Net or a specialised Java Integrated Development Environment (IDE) such as Borland JBuilder, Eclipse is designed as an open framework for tooling vendors to plug into.

HP adopted Eclipse to allow developers to automatically instrument their Java applications for management using its OpenView systems management tool. SAP meanwhile has been able to move forward with its NetWeaver platform by adopting Eclipse as the underlying IDE.

James Governor, principal analyst at RedMonk, believes that IBM has much bigger ambitions for Lotus Workplace than simply keeping its Lotus customers happy. According to Governor, IBM is attacking Microsoft Office with Lotus Workplace and at the same time demonstrating that the Eclipse project can offer capabilities somewhat like Microsoft's .Net framework, but in an open way.

"This is nothing less than an attempt by IBM to put forward an ecosystem that competes with original end to end vision of .Net," Governor said.

Governor said Eclipse is gaining momentum because of its modularity, flexibility and the fact it can be used on virtually any platform.

"If you are used to using Windows, it looks like Windows. On a Mac, it has a Mac-based interface," said Governor.

As a rival to existing Java IDEs, Eclipse has already taken significant proportion of the fragmented market in both Europe and the US. A survey published this week by Evans Data Corporation, a market research company based in California, suggests that Eclipse has captured around 18 percent of Java developers in the US and around 13 percent in Europe.

Albion Butters, an analyst at Evans Data said that Eclipse is the only major Java IDE, or toolkit, to be gaining global market share. According to Butters, over the past year Eclipse usage has grown by 60 percent in Europe, 90 percent in North America and 70 in the Asia-Pacific region.

"Eclipse looks like it may become a true open-source killer app," said Butters.

Butters said that Eclipse is emerging as a global leader and although it is still slightly less popular than JBuilder in Europe, it is catching up fast. In the US, Eclipse has already taken the number one spot while in the Asia Pacific region, which Butters said is an even more fragmented Java IDE market, Eclipse is "far from being the leader", but has shown "good growth and a lot of promise".

Replacing a Java IDE is only a small feather in Eclipse's hat. Governor said the bigger picture shows that IBM is using Eclipse to raise the stakes in its battle with Microsoft.

According to Governor, the battle between Microsoft and IBM is interesting because although both companies are trying to solve the same problem, they are approaching it from opposite directions.

"Microsoft has learned that you can't do everything with fat clients, and you need a spectrum from rich to thinner. IBM is coming from having a portal strategy that didn't have nearly enough richness to something that does," said Governor.

A representative from IBM was not immediately available for comment.