The recent release of the production version of Microchip’s MPLAB X integrated development tool suite continues the trend of embedded development tools adopting an open source platform to develop and manage an IDE (integrated development environment) – with a notable exception – Microchip’s MPLAB X is based on NetBeans rather than Eclipse. NetBeans and Eclipse are both open source projects that include tools, frameworks, and components for platforms and tools supporting software development. For the past seven years only the Eclipse IDE platform has been publicly adopted by embedded tool providers; with the release of MPLAB X, Microchip is arguably the first embedded microcontroller tool provider to publicly adopt NetBeans to date (PMC Sierra uses a NetBeans-based tool that was developed internally for validation tests).
Prior to the existence of either the Eclipse or NetBeans open source IDE platforms, embedded development tool providers offered command line tools and their own home-built IDEs for use by OEM embedded developers. During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, despite the fact that proprietary IDEs had been available for workstation and desktop software development for already a decade, these home-built IDEs provided a much needed productivity boost and simplified the complexity of learning a set of command line tools for embedded developers. The definition of a full featured IDE evolved from being just a shell environment that integrated and automated the tool flow of the software development tool chain into an environment that also provided on-demand capabilities such as programming language-specific syntax highlighting, built-in programming references accessible from within the editing environment, application-based frameworks or templates, as well as the ability to quickly switch between editing and debugging code in a cross target environment.
It soon became essential for any broadly used embedded development toolset to include a full featured IDE, and this represented a significant challenge to the tool developers because the engineering costs to build and maintain the evolving complexities of contemporary IDE functions continued to grow without an offsetting increase in differentiation from other tool offerings. The availability of open source IDE platforms provides an opportunity to leverage the latest concepts in IDEs by leveraging the efforts of many tools developers and avoiding committing a growing percentage of the tool development team’s effort to IDE innovations. This is especially important for embedded development tool chains because they are usually applicable to a small target audience and do not enjoy the amortization opportunities that broadly adopted development tools that target workstations or desktops enjoy.
The choice to use an open source IDE platform for embedded development tools impacts two groups of developers in different ways. One group consists of tool developers that make the development tools, and the other group consists of embedded developers that use the development tools.
The way embedded or end-system developers use development tools based on either the NetBeans or Eclipse open source IDE platforms differs significantly from the way tool developers do because rather than targeting the IDE platform, embedded developers are using the tools built on the platform to build cross platform systems that target embedded processors (such as microcontrollers and DSPs). Also, it is unlikely embedded developers will ever host the open source platform on a target embedded system (in contrast to a mobile application) while the tool developers are directly target their chosen open source platform on a development workstation. This difference in usage may explain why embedded developers, based on an informal survey about open source development tools, tell us they are more concerned with the speed, functionality, and ease-of-use of the toolset rather than the name of the underlying platform.
In contrast, the tool developers are affected most directly by the choice to use an open source IDE platform because the tool environment they are creating actually runs on the IDE platform – which is itself running on a Java Runtime Environment. They must intimately understand and work with the architecture and components of the open source platform they are working with. In this case, both the NetBeans and Eclipse platforms share a lot of similarities in that they: provide a framework for desktop application developers, offer a large number of similar features out-of-the-box, and provide a rich set of APIs accompanied by tutorials, FAQs, and books. The tool developers are also responsible for deciding how to present and deliver embedded development concepts, including those that are not ideally addressed in the chosen open source platform architecture; these kinds of mismatches can occur because the architecture of both of these platforms were originally developed with the needs of Java application developers in mind rather than embedded developers.
Understanding the background of both the NetBeans and Eclipse platforms exposes how each platform has reached its current state and how they are evolving to be able to more appropriately support embedded development. What has become NetBeans began in the Czech Republic in 1996 as a student project to build a Delphi-like Java IDE in Java. The project attracted enough interest that the group of students formed a company around it after they graduated. The original business plan was to develop network-enabled JavaBean components, which the company named NetBeans. When the specification for Enterprise Java Beans came out, the group decided it made more sense to work with the standard rather than compete with it, but they kept the NetBeans name. By the end of 1999, Sun Microsystems (later acquired by Oracle) acquired the company and planned to make NetBeans their flagship Java toolset. During the acquisition by Sun Microsystems, the idea of open-sourcing NetBeans was discussed and in June 2000, netbeans.org was launched.
In contrast, the Eclipse platform began as a project within IBM to provide a common platform to avoid duplicating the most common elements of software infrastructure for all IBM development products that were centered on Java development tooling. The vision was to enable a customer development environment that was composed of heterogeneous tools from IBM, the customer’s own toolbox, and third-party tools. Work began in 1998 on what eventually became the Eclipse platform. The team understood that the success of the platform needed broad adoption by third party vendors, and in response to the reluctance of business partners to invest in the as yet unproven platform the project adopted an open source licensing and operating model in 2001.
Despite adopting an open source licensing model, according to industry analysts at the time, the marketplace perceived Eclipse as an IBM-controlled effort, which made vendors reluctant to commit to the platform. In 2004, the Eclipse project was moved under the control of the newly created Eclipse Foundation, an independent non-profit organization with its own independent, paid staff that was supported by member company dues. It is around this time that companies serving the embedded market started evaluating the Eclipse platform for their own toolsets. Wind River (later acquired by Intel) was among the first companies to publicly commit to using the Eclipse platform. Since then, a growing list of companies (50+ according to the recent Eclipse 10 years of innovation announcement) serving the embedded community have adopted and used the Eclipse platform for their development tools.
In part 2, we will explore the reasons embedded tool developers are considering and, in many cases, migrating their development tools to an open source IDE platform.