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NetBeans Java IDE becomes top-level Apache project

The NetBeans Java development environment has achieved top-level project status at the Apache Software Foundation, a leading open source software project hosting organization.

Open source Java development environment NetBeans has achieved top-level project status at the Apache Software Foundation.

NetBeans is the integrated development environment (IDE) associated first with Sun Microsystems and later with Oracle, which acquired Sun in 2010. Oracle supported NetBeans until 2016, when it contributed the code to the Apache Incubator. The Java IDE has just graduated from the incubator and is open to a broad community of committers.

As an Apache project, NetBeans is more likely to attract contributions from committers than it did in association with a commercial entity.

NetBeans' beginnings

Mike Milinkovich, executive director, Eclipse Foundation Mike Milinkovich

NetBeans is among the most popular Java IDEs, although it has lost some luster of late. It was launched as a student project in 1996 before Sun acquired it in 2000 and began to invest in the platform to improve it for Java developers. Sun also acquired NetBeans to compete with the primarily IBM-built Eclipse IDE in 2001 and contributed to an open source consortium consisting of IBM, Red Hat, SUSE and others.

"Java developers are fortunate to have choice in their tools, and competition makes us all better," said Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, based in Ottawa.

Java IDE wars

The war between Eclipse and NetBeans became intense, with Eclipse pretty much winning the war to become the more popular Java IDE. However, both IDEs had to contend with the upstart IntelliJ IDEA, a new Java IDE from JetBrains, which today is perhaps the most popular IDE, depending on whom you ask and where you look.

"IntelliJ definitely dominates today and is my personal choice," said Martijn Verburg, CEO of London-based jClarity and co-lead of the London Java User Group. "NetBeans is my second favorite due to its great UX around build tools. I think it's important that there's some decent choice, which drives innovation."

The PopularitY of Programming Language Index ranks Eclipse as the top Java IDE. NetBeans ranks as the second most popular Java IDE, and IntelliJ comes in third.

However, according to the results of the 2019 Stack Overflow Developer Survey, IntelliJ is the most popular Java IDE, with 25.4% of respondents using it. Eclipse is the second most popular, with 14.4%. And NetBeans is third, with 5.9%.

Joshua Bloch, a professor at the Institute for Software Research at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and formerly a distinguished engineer at Sun and chief Java architect at Google, is a longtime IntelliJ user and considers it the standout IDE.

"With my limited knowledge, it feels like IntelliJ won," he said. "Students at CMU have largely switched from Eclipse to IntelliJ. I don't know many people who use NetBeans."

However, some big Java supporters use NetBeans and publically sing its praises. James Gosling, lead creator of Java, said on Twitter that he's been "happily" using NetBeans on Amazon Corretto. "It's all rock-solid," he said.

Vendors invest in IDEs

The success and related popularity of IDEs is largely based on the investment models behind them, said Cameron Purdy, CEO of xqzit.io and former senior vice president of development at Oracle.

When IBM needed Eclipse as part of its strategy, it invested heavily in Eclipse development. After IBM achieved its goals, the investment tapered off, but never stopped. Similarly, Sun and Oracle funded NetBeans reasonably well initially and for the first few years after the Sun acquisition. But, at some point, the investment began to dwindle.

Java developers are fortunate to have choice in their tools, and competition makes us all better.
Mike MilinkovichExecutive director, Eclipse Foundation

"Maybe in some alternate universe, Sun Microsystems didn't spend a full $1 billion on MySQL, but took a chunk of that to create a NetBeans Foundation that rivals the Eclipse Foundation," said Emilian Bold, a member of the Apache NetBeans Project Management Committee. "But I'm not entirely certain it would have been better for the project."

JetBrains, meanwhile, has invested in IntelliJ all along, Purdy said. Moreover, he said the company's engineering is done in places where engineers are not paid piles of money -- Prague.

"The team has been relatively stable for many years," Purdy said. "The result is an incredible IDE. That's not to take anything away from NetBeans or Eclipse, which are both feats of engineering in and of themselves, but they are both significantly behind [IntelliJ] IDEA."

Meanwhile, there is some speculation about whether, with the new six-month Java release cadence, NetBeans will be able keep up without significant investment.

Apache NetBeans 11.0 was released on April 4 and is the project's third major release since entering the Apache Incubator.

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