23 November 2006

Silver'd in the moon's eclipse...

In intelligence circles, the rules for choosing a name for an operation generally include the requirement that it give no clue as to the nature of that operation’s aims or objectives. People who set up large software consortia seem to think in much the same way. While application software tends to have names reflecting function (think of Word, Mathematica, TableCurve), desirable attributes (Excel, FlexPro, etc) or both (DesignEase, Kaleidagraph), projects seem drawn to inscrutability. Why name an entity whose mission is clarity with a word implying obscurity?

Because clarity is, at heart, what Eclipse is all about: provision of a free and open software framework for transparent applications development, and an active user community around it. Java-based, born of IBM as a successor to VisualAge Micro Edition, now under the direction of a not-for-profit industry consortium with components from many different companies, it has grown into an intriguing example of the way standards can evolve out of cooperation within a competitive market.

Being primarily an end user, not a software developer unless a pressing outgrowth of my main concerns requires it, I let much of its early progress pass me by with only peripheral attention. Then, a year and a half ago, the Eclipse Workbench made its appearance in a large mainstream science data analysis product, Insightful’s S-Plus 7, and I belatedly took close notice for the first time. In June of this year, when I had just about caught up, Wolfram also released a Workbench version of its own. One lesson that I have learned, much to my own surprise, is that this trend is not only relevant to developers – the past 18 months have won me over to a wholly unexpected degree.

Workbench is just one part of an Eclipse range that is too great, and too dynamic, to comprehensively deal with here. On the other hand, without some idea of that range, the importance of Eclipse and its Workbench for science users is lost. I’ll touch on a small sample, but refer interested readers to the Eclipse website (see sources) for the rest. [Read more...]

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