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Frank Thoughts
The Death of the General-Purpose IDE and the Last Java Developer
by Frank Sommers
September 1, 2006
As modern IDEs are becoming larger, IDE projects cope with entropy by creating versions of their tools aimed at specialized developer communities, for instance, around popular enterprise frameworks. What does the segmentation of the IDE market place along the lines of developer micro-communities say about the future of IDEs?


We featured an interview this week with NetBeans evangelist Tim Boudreau, who contrasted the NetBeans and Eclipse approaches to IDEs. According to Boudreau, the Eclipse project leaves it to third-parties to integrate various plug-ins into a usable IDE tool, whereas NetBeans places more emphasis on ensuring that a single distribution works well out of the box.

Regardless of what approach an IDE project takes, IDEs are becoming more complex each year. Given that the "I" in IDE stands for "integrated," the natural desire for an IDE to integrate an increasing amount tools and functionality should not be surprising. However, if the trend of everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-type IDEs continues, IDEs will soon reach a point of entropy, making them both less reliable and harder to use. Tim Boudreau's comments in the interview suggest that that might already be the case with Eclipse.

One way IDE vendors seem to respond to that problem is by segmenting the market based on the type of developer using a tool. Borland, for instance, recently released stripped-down versions of its developer tools, following in the footsteps of Microsoft that now offers free versions of Visual Studio aimed at the less serious developer (although the free versions pack plenty of features).

Representatives from Borland also told me at JavaOne that they're planning to make their future IDEs, based on Eclipse, customizable, for instance, to open-source frameworks, such as Struts, Spring, or RIFE. Sybase is following a similar strategy with its IDE, also built on Eclipse, that targets developers who create solutions primarily for Sybase's platform.Such segmentation would target developers who think of themselves primarily as Struts or EJB or Sybase developers, and only then as Java developers.

Segmenting the IDE market by offering specialized IDEs to different micro-audiences seems like a reasonable alternative to overly bloated tools. But what does that say about the future of IDEs? Does it imply, for example, the demise of the general purpose IDE? And what does that say about the future of the Java developer community?

At the cusp of the American Revolution, the Federalists urged people think of themselves first not as Virginians or Carolinians, but as Americans. If IDE trends are any indication of broader developer attitudes, an opposite trend toward specialization and fragmentation may be evident in the Java community today.

Frameworks, and the tools supporting them, can certainly make a developer more productive. It follows that businesses already committed to a framework or a solution would prize a specialist in a framework more than a generalist Java developer. And it follows that IDE vendors can make money supporting the communities and ecosystems developing around frameworks and specialist tools.

But where will that leave IDEs, and the developer community five or ten years hence? Will EclipseCon, or NetBeans Day—or an Eclipse-for-Struts Con or a NetBeans-for-Swing Day—or a Seam developer conference, one day gather more audiences than JavaOne? Will publications serving those communities be more successful than their more generalist competitors? And, most important, will there be a generalist Java developer five or ten years from now?

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About the Blogger

Frank Sommers is a Senior Editor with Artima Developer. Prior to joining Artima, Frank wrote the Jiniology and Web services columns for JavaWorld. Frank also serves as chief editor of the Web zine, the IEEE Technical Committee on Scalable Computing's newsletter. Prior to that, he edited the Newsletter of the IEEE Task Force on Cluster Computing. Frank is also founder and president of Autospaces, a company dedicated to bringing service-oriented computing to the automotive software market.

Prior to Autospaces, Frank was vice president of technology and chief software architect at a Los Angeles system integration firm. In that capacity, he designed and developed that company's two main products: A financial underwriting system, and an insurance claims management expert system. Before assuming that position, he was a research fellow at the Center for Multiethnic and Transnational Studies at the University of Southern California, where he participated in a geographic information systems (GIS) project mapping the ethnic populations of the world and the diverse demography of southern California. Frank's interests include parallel and distributed computing, data management, programming languages, cluster and grid computing, and the theoretic foundations of computation. He is a member of the ACM and IEEE, and the American Musicological Society.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2006 Frank Sommers. All rights reserved.

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