I Don’t Use Eclipse Just Because it’s Free

Bjorn wrote a blog post, which I didn’t quite agree with, entitled Eclipse is Not Free. I think that Eclipse certainly is free, for any reasonable definition of free, but I don’t want to argue that point. Instead, I want to talk about its corollary: people don’t just use Eclipse because it’s free.

At his EclipseCon ‘07 keynote speech, Robert “The R0ml” Lefkowitz asserted that Eclipse must be the worst IDE because it’s free. His comment was tongue-in-cheek, I think. But some IntelliJ IDEA proponents essentially say the same thing: the only reason anybody uses Eclipse is because it’s free, and if they weren’t so damned cheap they would cough up the $249 for an IntelliJ license (personal use).

I call these people IntelliJ snobs.

R0ml’s argument went that, according to the laws of the market, if there were ever an IDE that was worse than Eclipse and also cost money, then of course nobody would buy it. After all, why would anybody pay to use an inferior product when the alternative is free? Therefore the free product must be the worst one on the market.

His argument neglects the fact that price and brand are signals which powerfully influence consumers. How many times have you looked at two similar items in a shop and chosen the more expensive one because “it must be better”? I did this recently when buying a new washing line. I know nothing about washing line technology, so I had no way of differentiating the two options except for their price: one cost £1.99, the other cost £3.99. I chose the more expensive one, which was probably a wise decision in this case, but only because there is no such thing as an open source washing line. It is inconceivable for a cheap or free physical item — like a washing line, or a car — to be equivalent or superior in quality to an expensive one.

Thus price is a signal that consumers are very accustomed to listening to, which unfortunately means it can be used to mislead. It’s very easy to convince oneself that IntelliJ IDEA must be a superior IDE merely because it costs $249 (personal use), especially if you have already paid for it. But in the software market, prices are utterly arbitrary, and bear no relation to product quality.

I’ve tried IntelliJ, version 6. I thought it was a perfectly okay IDE. Having listened to people who rave about it, I was waiting for some kind of epiphany — “OH MY GOD I LOVE THIS IDE” — but of course it never came. In fact I noticed a number of annoyances, and in general it felt to be behind Eclipse in features and usability. Perhaps those problems have been fixed by now, but nevertheless IntelliJ fell far short of the religious experience that I was promised.

Earlier this year, Ted Neward gave a talk at the Jazoon conference in Zurich. I watched the video on Parleys.com. Neward is an IntelliJ snob: at one point he asks the audience who uses Eclipse, and although the audience is not visible in the video, it is obvious that the majority of the room put their hands up. He then asks who would use Eclipse if it cost $500, and apparently most people put their hands down. He then scolds them for being cheapskates.

I don’t really understand why everybody put their hands down, because of course I would still use Eclipse if it cost $500! Perhaps they just felt sorry for the presenter, as most of his jokes had fallen horribly flat.

You see, I have had that epiphany when using Eclipse, except it was “oh my God I love this PLATFORM”. I can do so much with it! I can extend it in every direction. I can build my own applications on top of it. It’s not perfect, but no software ever is… at least with Eclipse I can participate in fixing any problems I find. And it contains the best IDE for any language I have ever seen — namely the Java Development Tools (JDT) for Eclipse.

This is my opinion: I use Eclipse because it’s the best. The fact that it’s free is merely the icing on the cake. You’re entitled to disagree with me, but don’t call me cheap.