2004 Edition Free and Open Source Software Developer's European Meeting


2004-02-16 - Ian Formanek


An interview conducted by Alain Buret
FOSDEM - First and traditional question : Please present yourself ...

Ian Formanek - I am currently working as the chief of technology for the NetBeans project at Sun Microsystems. Half of this involves making sure the NetBeans IDE meets the needs of its target users (including making sure we know who those really are). The second half of my job is to maintain and grow/improve/evolve the plug-in ecosystem for the IDE. I'll cover this in more detail later in the interview.

FOSDEM - How and when did you start the NetBeans adventure ?

Ian Formanek - The basic roots of the project date back to 1996, when I, together with 6 classmates, started a student project at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. The original goal of the project was to create a visual development tool for C/C++ for the X Window system, to boost the creation of interesting desktop apps for the UNIX environment, so we named the project "Xelfi". At that time, the whole Java Platform story was emerging, and we soon realized that is the way to go. It was new, more fun, and the resulting potential was greater, so after a very short discussion we switched the whole project to Java as both the implementing and target language. After about 8 months of heavy coding we got the project to a state where it actually became useful, and decided to go ahead and continue the development of it.

So NetBeans was born as a small company focused on proving the best tool for Java developers. We threw pretty much all of the existing code away and started again, learning from the past and leveraging new enhancements in the Java Platform (like JavaBeans, etc.). We grew the team significantly, from the original small team to about 40 engineers, and released couple versions of NetBeans Developer (which was the IDE name at that time).

In the fall or 1999, Sun Microsystems acquired NetBeans, and soon after that, in June 2000, launched, an open source project whose charter was tocontinue the development.

FOSDEM - What are the major points of NetBeans ?

Ian Formanek - NetBeans is really several different things:
  • project is an active open source project, that has about 200 commiters, and large number of active users.
  • NetBeans IDE is primarily a Java IDE, which is extremely modular and extensible. The basic IDE is optimized for coding productivity for general Java coding developers. On top of that, the IDE has also very rich set of plug-in APIs and a large amount of domain or application-specific plug-ins available in the NetBeans Module Catalogue.
  • NetBeans Platform is the infrastructure on top of which the NetBeans IDE is built. It is a rich framework for creating general large desktop applications of any kind. The platform solves typical issues that large desktop apps developers keep solving again and again. The idea is that developers should focus on their core competency in the area they are addressing, and leave the details on how to manage windows, toolbars, menus, create plug-in APIs or many other purely infrastructural tasks, on the underlying platform.

    FOSDEM - Who are the competitors of NetBeans, and what would you say to convince the reader to use NetBeans instead of some other proprietary (or not) solution ?

    Ian Formanek - There are several ways to look at the competition. Obviously, the closest to NetBeans project is Eclipse, which was started on very similar bases as NetBeans, and the goals are also very similar. We are competing head to head, and, in my personal opinion, this competition is extremely healthy thing to push both of the products forward. At this point NetBeans wins in the breadth of features, whereas Eclipse has smoother appearance and might be easier to use for some people. Of course, we are working on improving in the areas where we see holes on our side.

    Other players in the market of general IDE for coders are Borland with JBuilder, IntelliJ with IDEA. We have somewhat easier competitive position here, as IntelliJ is a for-sale product and JBuilder only provides limited set of features in their free edition.

    Another important player, which might be surprising to some people, is the group of advanced text editors like Vim and EMACS. Those still capture a significant portion of the coding developers market specifically because of their focus on text production productivity, and ability to tweak/automate that can further enhance the pace at which code can be created.

    FOSDEM - People sometime complains that Java needs lots of RAM and powerful CPU, compared to binary executables. Do you think this is due to badly programmed Java apps ?

    Ian Formanek - Yes and no. It is a matter of fact that writing apps against any runtime as rich as Java Platform in its ease of development and security, has a price that needs to be paid in the hardware requirements. Having said that, developers do need to pay much greater attention to performance in their apps. Many examples, including NetBeans, Eclipse, IDEA, show that it is possible to write Java apps, that do perform comparably to native apps.

    Another factor here is that the development on the hardware side will make the computer part of this problem go away fairly soon. But, of course, the human side - the need for continuous attention to performance that developers need to pay - will continue to be present.

    FOSDEM - Introduce in few words what you're going to talk about during your presentation ...

    Ian Formanek - I am going to briefly introduce NetBeans project and NetBeans IDE, and then focus specifically on its architecture and plug-in APIs. I will spend also some time on the NetBeans Platform and the potential it has for rapid creation of large desktop applications. Both the presentation and the tutorial will be deeply technical, though I will also spend some time during the presentation on some open source marketing and business opportunities aspects.

    FOSDEM - What are you expecting from your talk at FOSDEM and from the interactions with other developers present at the event ?

    Ian Formanek - I am continuously interested in conversations about how the ultimate solution looks for development tools, and thinking outside of the box on how to get there. Forums like FOSDEM are a great opportunity for this type of things.


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