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NetBeans Interview with Tim Cramer

Interview with Tim Cramer, Executive Director of Tools at Sun Microsystems

Recently I was able to talk to Tim Cramer, executive director of tools at Sun, about NetBeans. Tim started in engineering doing supercomputer compiler work, moved to more generalized hardware compiler work, and naturally moved to JIT/dynamic compilers in Java during its first few years. Tim's first management job was in the Java performance group, working to improve the base performance of Java SE and EE. He followed as the director of NetBeans in August of 2004 and is now the executive director for all Java tools at Sun.

There seems to have been a lot of activity around NetBeans' 5.0 release lately. What's all the excitement about?

Tim Cramer: NetBeans 5.0 delivered a lot of new features that blew the Java developer away: the GUI Builder formerly known as Project Matisse, the code-aware collaboration tools, the NetBeans Profiler, and Web framework support. In addition, we made improvements to existing features: better CVS support, improvements in the Java editor, etc. It's a pretty compelling product release. With NetBeans 5.0 we really reached a tipping point in the market: more and more users and more and more partners recognized that NetBeans increases their productivity by delivering open standards and innovative technology.

What's the list of line items and features that the developers are working on for the next release?

TC: NetBeans 5.5 is our next release. It's all about supporting Java EE 5 - which is a big advance over J2EE 1.4 - but we obviously also want to continue providing a great out-of-box experience for Web development. I don't know if you saw the Visual Web Development demo at JavaOne, but a subset of those features (originally part of Creator) will be in NetBeans 5.5 and we also have a few other things coming down the pike: Subversion support and new features in our GUI Builder will be available through the Update Center.

Where is the NetBeans market growing? Is it in the corporate space, and what geographies are big users?

TC: The NetBeans market is growing in all ways. We've increased our active users by a factor of six since we released NetBeans 4.0 in January 2005. We have over 120 partners who are either building on our platform or using our IDE for development. Our CD Around the World Program has received orders and we've shipped CDs to over 40 different countries. We are huge in Brazil where the community is localizing NetBeans 5.0. We have a large and growing community in China and look for some interesting things coming out of India this coming year.

NetBeans is Open Source. Do most of your contributors still come from the original Xelfi coders in the Czech republic, or you have you grown this to non-Sun employee ?

TC: Most of our developers are currently Sun employees. However, growing beyond this is one of our top priorities for the coming year. With the increased demand and interest in NetBeans, we just cannot continue to do it on our own. The community has some great ideas and developers and it would be silly if we didn't take advantage of that brainpower. In the past six months, we've seen a dramatic increase in translations and plug-in development from the community.

Do NetBeans users tend to be Java EE developers, Java SE, or Java ME?

TC: The thing about NetBeans is that it enables development end-to-end - from the phone handset to the big back-end server. You can create a Java ME, EE, or SE application with NetBeans. But, I'd have to say that we have more Java SE and EE developers but probably only because the market is larger in those areas. Our support for Java ME is very strong. The NetBeans Mobility Pack has gotten rave reviews and is ahead of the competition in almost every area.

Swing used to, and still does, get beaten up quite a bit over being an emulated widget toolkit. Is this an issue for NetBeans, and are there any plans for SWT tooling?

TC: Not an issue at all. People who are complaining about Swing have probably not used it in a long time. There have been HUGE improvements in JDK 5 (and there are more coming in JDK 6) that boosted performance and increased the ability of Swing applications to "look native" on a number of platforms. Being a 100% Swing application, NetBeans naturally benefits from those. We have no plans for SWT tooling as the value proposition is based on Swing, standards, and 100% Java. SWT is not a request that we hear from our users.

Do Java EE third-party frameworks like Hibernate have a very positive effect? How does NetBeans cope with third-party providers?

TC: The community has responded to the momentum behind NetBeans by creating all sorts of plug-in modules including those for third-party frameworks; we have third party plug-ins from both commercial and Open Source providers. And of course there are some third-party frameworks that are supported in NetBeans out-of-the-box: JUnit, Struts, and Ant.

For Swing how do you see popular frameworks like JGoodies being incorporated into NetBeans?

TC: We are open to anyone. If there's interest from the JGoodies community then we'd like to talk to them. Have them contact me or they can just join our NetBeans community and start contributing.

What are the plans regarding support for the data-binding effort being done by the Swing Labs team and other initiatives going on there being tooled for in NetBeans?

TC: Yes. Data binding is a hot topic in the Java community. As you know there's JSR 295, titled Beans Binding, that's pretty early on. Support for this JSR as well as the Swing Application Framework (JSR 296) is fairly high on the NetBeans priorities list. Some of this work was already shown at NetBeans Day at the JavaOne 2006 conference. You can check out the NetBeans GUI Builder (formerly known as Project Matisse) roadmap here: http://form.netbeans.org/roadmap.html

What are the plans for simplifying working with JTable in NetBeans? Other development languages score high on their ease-of-use development in this area whereas by contrast Java is quite difficult to use.

TC: A key part of any binding solution is the ease with which a developer can create a master detail application. A master detail application typically involves a JTable and a host of components driven by the selection in the JTable. We realize the importance of this scenario, and plan to make it as natural as possible. Developers will be able to drag and drop database tables to create a table, binding the table and detail components to the selection. In addition, configuring an existing JTable will be trivial. Developers will easily be able to configure the headers, number of columns, alignment, formatting, colors; you name it, we'll offer it.

Microsoft understands that good development tools that hide complexity help the adoption of the language such as Visual Basic. Do you see the same relationship between NetBeans and Java?

TC: Absolutely. I like to say that NetBeans allows mere mortals to develop Java EE applications. This is one of our key benefits over other IDEs out there and we do it out-of-the-box. Furthermore, the Java EE 5 specification itself is focused on making thing simpler. But there are still lots of things an IDE can do to help with things like creation of specific classes, use of an entity manager, etc. And NetBeans IDE version 5.5 will provide all that and more.

What is going on in NetBeans in the Java EE space, especially with EJB 3.0 and JSF?

TC: In NetBeans 5.5 we'll have complete support for EJB 3.0 and Java Server Faces 1.2. A developer will be able to create EJB 3.0 entity beans from an existing database automatically. Optionally, a developer can then have the IDE generate a basic JSF application automatically from those entity beans. So think about what this means: without writing any code you can create a basic create/read/update/delete (CRUD) Web application in just a few moments.

Eclipse recently broke away from IBM into its own independent foundation that attracted folks like BEA and Borland and there's talk of Google joining. Does NetBeans have plans for a foundation structure to grow its base of contributing companies?

TC: No. We have seen a huge boost in interest from third-party companies in NetBeans and they're not at all put off by the lack of a foundation. We have over 120 partners. In some ways it actually gives us an advantage - I suspect that the number of conflicting interests that Eclipse is trying to satisfy is straining its ability to innovate.

There was some hooha in the press recently where Scott McNealy said Oracle was backing NetBeans, and then Larry Ellison promptly denied it. What's going on here?

TC: You really have to ask Larry Ellison that.

Where do you see NetBeans and Java going in the next 10 years?

TC: Wow! That's easy. Java will continue to be the premier development platform across the globe and NetBeans will be the market leader in the tools development space. In the more immediate future, we have begun work on NetBeans 6.0 and we should have a beta out in the spring of 2007. This release will address some of the customer feedback we've gotten about enhancements to the editor. Stay tuned.

I've heard that NetBeans is going to offer design-time and high-level tools soon? What's being provided and when can we see this in NetBeans?

TC: Yes, we've recently announced our plans to make available, very shortly, major elements of Sun Java Studio Enterprise, our premier enterprise-grade development environment for architecting and implementing enterprise applications, as an Open Source project in NetBeans.org. These will be released as the NetBeans Enterprise Pack. In fact, one can already download the preview version of the NetBeans 5.5 Enterprise Pack to evaluate features that includes UML modeling, BPEL-based process orchestration, and XML tooling prior to gaining access to the project in Open Source.

What level of UML support is being provided?

TC: The NetBeans Enterprise Pack will offer the comprehensive UML modeling capabilities as seen in Sun Java Studio Enterprise. Providing support for the UML 2.0 specification, the modeling environment is fully synchronized in real-time with the underlying code and this synchronization is bi-directional in nature. We are specifically addressing the productivity concerns of the enterprise teams over the entire lifecycle going well into the maintenance phase of a project by ensuring that the bi-directional model to code synchronization is achieved without introducing "markers" into the code, allowing for real-time model changes to be affected when the underlying code is changed and vice versa. Of course, ease of use and productivity continues to be our single-minded endeavor and this is also reflected with the rich set of capabilities provided with the diagramming and model navigation capabilities.

You mentioned BPEL orchestration and XML capabilities. What can we expect to see in this space?

TC: With the maturing of the SOA space, it's imperative that the development platform provides teams with the ability to rapidly orchestrate services. The NetBeans IDE already provides for easy creation of Web Services, so it's a natural progression to allow for developers to quickly orchestrate them together. To that end, we've showcased in the NetBeans 5.5. Enterprise Pack preview a BPEL-based orchestration designer to develop the BPEL process orchestration and provided a BPEL runtime to deploy and test.

In developing these Web Services we quickly realized that one of the biggest pain points for an enterprise team is XML document creation and manipulation. If we took into account that a real-world XML schema can potentially be as large as 17K lines of code then it becomes self-evident that a lot of time is spent in creating the schema and getting it right. Therefore it's imperative for a development environment to have the right XML tooling to improve productivity. The NetBeans 5.5 Enterprise Pack preview showcases an XML editor and graphical XML document analysis with built-in queries that allow for easy schema creation and debugging.

So where do you see the NetBeans platform going with all of this?

TC: Productivity as envisaged in a SOA project is no more about just the Java code and an individual developer. Productivity in this day and age is measured in the context of the entire team working and collaborating on creating services configuring and orchestrating them and this scenario introduces a lot of necessary layers of technology, ranging from Web-based and Swing clients to Java EE-based Web Services and BPEL-based orchestrations. The NetBeans platform allows teams to navigate these layers and focus on the business domain at hand. With the modeling and BPEL tooling we're letting the NetBeans community achieve greater levels of team productivity.

Couple this with all of the work already done in ensuring better team collaboration with the version control support and the numerous other innovations brought in via the GUI Builder, NetBeans Mobility Pack for developing mobile applications, NetBeans support for Java EE, and one thing stands out, that NetBeans drives productivity - not just for the developer but for the enterprise team at large.

Tim, thank you for your time.

You're welcome.

More Stories By Joe Winchester

Joe Winchester, Editor-in-Chief of Java Developer's Journal, was formerly JDJ's longtime Desktop Technologies Editor and is a software developer working on development tools for IBM in Hursley, UK.

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