November 20, 2001

Open Source Netbeans helps Sun win developers' loyalty -- and business

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
Netbeans, financed by Sun Microsystems, is an
Open Source project that is building a combination applications core, tools platform, and IDE (integrated development environment) that helps developers produce either Open Source or proprietary Java applications quickly and inexpensively. It is rapidly gaining popularity. Netbeans developers say they have had over 20,000 downloads in the last month alone.
Even though Sun foots the bill for Netbeans, it's a self-governing, independent organization. Its primary purpose, according to Mark Herring, director of marketing for Sun's Forte Tools group, is to "simplify the complexities of coding" by handling many of the underlying mechanics so that programmers can concentrate more fully on achieving the desired end results.

Herring's involvement with Netbeans comes through Forte. While Netbeans is free and Open Source, Forte Tools are decidely un-free, and selling Forte Tools to Netbeans users is how Sun expects to make money from Netbeans. Herring points out that other companies are also selling development tools that work with Netbeans. He specifically mentions Compuware, Zucotto, and Compaq's OpenVMS, and proudly states that there are now over 70 companies selling assorted modules, add-ons or tools for Netbeans or building on top of it in one way or another.

Sun regards this group of Netbeans vendors as one of the project's greatest strengths, even though some of them compete directly with Sun's own offerings. Herring says, "With the Microsoft way of doing things, you're stuck with one vendor who decides where you want to go today. Netbeans' open source allows a choice of innovations from many vendors."

Herring admits that with some of its developer-oriented products, "Microsoft is ahead in ease of use," but points out that, in return for a slightly steeper learning curve, "Netbeans doesn't lock you into an OS or a particular applications server."

This lock-in, along with what Herring calls a "trust us, we have everything for you" attitude built into Microsoft's corporate mentality, is what Sun perceives as the downside of working with .NET or C#. "With Netbeans, Sun One, Java," Herring says, "we let the market decide which [platform] have multiple vendors vying for your business."

Another reason for choosing Netbeans and Java over competing Microsoft IDEs, according to James Allen, technical product manager for Forte Tools, is the growth of Java-based wireless applications providers, who are an entrenched reality in Japan, but just starting to spread to the U.S. in a big way. "Java is huge in that market," says Allen.

But even with Java's dominant position in the growing wireless applications marketplace, will Java and Netbeans successfully compete with Microsoft's attempts to win developers' hearts and minds for .NET and C#?

It is going to be a long struggle, but Sun is certainly succeeding in getting its wares into developers hands, which is half the battle. Sun claims over 1.5 million copies of Forte Tools have already been downloaded. With that much Forte out there, they just may be able to hold the (Java) fort.

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