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Eclipse is an open-source platform-independent framework for the creation of rich-client applications. In other words it's an extensible platform for building complex desktop (rather than browser-based) applications. Principally it's used to create integrated development environments (IDEs), the best known being the Java Development Toolkit. However, there's much more to Eclipse than a fully featured and advanced Java development environment. Because it's a framework designed to be extended using plug-ins, Eclipse can be used for C/C++, PHP, Python and other languages. Indeed, Eclipse is supported by a whole ecology of plug-ins and tools, commercial as well as open-source. Additionally Eclipse integrates external build tools, such as Apache Ant, source control using CVS, unit testing frameworks such as jUnit and much more.
In terms of the Java development environment, Eclipse comprehensively covers the full edit-compile-debug cycle. The use of an incremental compiler makes for a very rich debugging environment. There is also a very high-level of support for code refactoring.
The home of Eclipse is http://www.eclipse.org/. There are pre-configured downloads for a number of platforms, including Windows, Linux and Mac OS X. There are a number of sites that help navigate and find plug-ins, including http://eclipse-plugins.2y.net/eclipse/index.jsp and http://www.eclipseplugincentral.com/.
There's no shortage of competition in the Java IDE arena. Of the heavy-weight IDEs, the most obvious open-source competitor is NetBeans, which has undergone extensive development in recent years in response to the fact that Eclipse has captured the imagination of so-many developers. Commercial rivals include IntelliJ from IDEA, and Borland's JBuilder. For those looking for more light-weight tools, there are some good choices available, including the excellent jEdit, and for Java developers on Windows there's always the ultra-fast jCreator.
Eclipse offers good levels of support, both in terms of documentation, web-based materials and active news groups. There are also a number of excellent books available. Some of the best include Eclipse 3 Live by Bill Dudney, Eclipse 3.0 Kick Start by Carlos Valcarcel and Eclipse by Steve Holzner.
Eclipse itself doesn't use the standard Swing/AWT graphics libraries, instead it uses SWT. However, it's possible to create apps that use Swing or SWT, and there are a range of plug-in GUI designers available.
As well as being an IDE for building IDEs, Eclipse is an excellent container for hosting complex applications. An increasing number of organisations are migrating their apps to Eclipse. This is a trend that's worth keeping an eye on. And anyone wanting to get to grips with how to do this should take a look at Eclipse : Building Commercial-Quality Plug-ins, which has been reviewed here at TechBookReport.