Will Sun Open-Source Java?

By Peter Galli  |  Print this article Print


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The debate inside Sun over whether to take Java open source is coming to a head as the JavaOne conference looms May 15. One of new Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz's first chores will be to manage the scrum and gauge the future of Java.

New Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz's first 100 days at the helm are about to get interesting. First up: managing an internal debate over whether the company should open-source Java.

According to sources inside Sun, an ongoing debate over whether to open-source Java is coming to a head with the JavaOne conference looming May 16. Schwartz, who led the open-sourcing of Solaris, could not be reached for comment on the matter.

A former Sun exec calls on the company to open-source Java. Click here to read more.

Nevertheless, opponents of the idea are trying "to get time with Schwartz now that he is CEO so they can get their point of view across before the JavaOne conference in May, where some speculate he may announce the open-sourcing of Java," said a source close to Sun who requested anonymity.

What Schwartz will ultimately decide on Java remains to be seen, but it's another item on his long to-do list. Schwartz, who took the reins from Scott McNealy April 24, has to keep Wall Street happy and structure Sun so it will be consistently profitable. Sun hasn't reported an annual profit since 2001 and had a loss of $217 million for the fiscal third quarter of 2006, which ended March 26.

Meanwhile, skeptics of Schwartz abound. Financial services company JP Morgan, of New York, issued a research note April 25 that said it is "concerned that Jonathan Schwartz may bring less change to Sun than an outside candidate could have."

For his part, Schwartz remains confident. "First, we're in an industry that is only going to grow. For the rest of our lives, the network is only going to expand, as is the demand for the products which Sun builds. Sun is in a great position today to capitalize on this network growth," he told eWEEK in an e-mail interview. "We're ready to deliver."

Against that backdrop, Schwartz will have to weigh the future of Java. Schwartz has not balked at making some big decisions in his previous roles at Sun, most notably getting the Santa Clara, Calif., company to reverse course and commit to a version of Solaris for x86 hardware, and later open-sourcing the company's flagship operating system.

So far, Sun has resisted many calls to open-source Java. The reason: Sun fears doing so will open the doors for competitors to grab and change Java, resulting in the kernel forking and compatibility problems.

John Loiacono, Sun's former executive vice president of software, who recently took an executive position at Adobe Systems, of San Jose, Calif., admitted as much in an exclusive interview with eWEEK. "One of the projects we were working on was how far we should go with opening Java, to the point of absolutely open-sourcing it. But we always came back to the question of who we were ultimately appeasing with the move and how such a move benefits Sun customers and shareholders," Loiacono said.

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Other former Sun executives have a different take. Peter Yared, a developer who was Sun's chief technologist for network identity before leaving in 2003 to become the CEO of San Francisco-based ActiveGrid, said the big question is how Java benefits Sun's shareholders today, especially since "Sun doesn't make any money on it," he said.

"It is losing momentum against open-source up-and-comers like LAMP [Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP/ Python/Perl]. They can continue to get the same certification revenue by licensing the Java trademark," Yared said.

Yared has long called for Sun to open Java, which, he said, is "great on the back end, but LAMP is great on the Web tier, as Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Flickr, MySpace and Friendster have shown. Sun should endorse PHP and go one step forward and make sure the 'P' languages run great on the JVM [Java virtual machine] by open-sourcing Java."

The proof for this? IBM and Oracle both have strongly endorsed PHP in their architectures, and it has not cannibalized their Java middleware sales.

eWEEK also has learned that there are ongoing discussions within Sun about possible changes to the licensing terms for Java, while negotiations are under way for strategic partnerships around Java and the products and services associated with that.

As CEO, Schwartz is now in a position to make the call to open-source Java, unfettered. But some of the concerns that have prevented Sun from truly open-sourcing Java in the past linger. One issue cited by insiders: If Sun open-sources Java, Microsoft could take it and slap it into Windows Vista. Microsoft's licensing agreements with Sun to use Java source code and compatibility test suites generate revenue for the company and could be altered or voided if open-sourced, sources said.

There are worries inside Sun that an open Java could allow Microsoft and IBM to outmuscle the company on the marketing side, a source said. "It's a two-edged sword: The more freedom you give people because it's good and you get more usage, the more people decide they don't want to live by the rules of compatibility and they break away," Loiacono said.

But ActiveGrid's Yared disagreed, saying that all this talk of Java getting fractured is overblown. "Open-sourcing Java does not mean that Sun relinquishes the Java trademark. If you pass the Java compatibility test, you will get the right to call it Java. If not, you call it something else. Microsoft has already done that, first with J++ and then with C#, and no one thinks either of these are Java," he said.

Check out eWEEK.com's for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.

Peter Galli has been a financial/technology reporter for 12 years at leading publications in South Africa, the UK and the US. He has been Investment Editor of South Africa's Business Day Newspaper, the sister publication of the Financial Times of London.

He was also Group Financial Communications Manager for First National Bank, the second largest banking group in South Africa before moving on to become Executive News Editor of Business Report, the largest daily financial newspaper in South Africa, owned by the global Independent Newspapers group.

He was responsible for a national reporting team of 20 based in four bureaus. He also edited and contributed to its weekly technology page, and launched a financial and technology radio service supplying daily news bulletins to the national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which were then distributed to some 50 radio stations across the country.

He was then transferred to San Francisco as Business Report's U.S. Correspondent to cover Silicon Valley, trade and finance between the US, Europe and emerging markets like South Africa. After serving that role for more than two years, he joined eWeek as a Senior Editor, covering software platforms in August 2000.

He has comprehensively covered Microsoft and its Windows and .Net platforms, as well as the many legal challenges it has faced. He has also focused on Sun Microsystems and its Solaris operating environment, Java and Unix offerings. He covers developments in the open source community, particularly around the Linux kernel and the effects it will have on the enterprise.

He has written extensively about new products for the Linux and Unix platforms, the development of open standards and critically looked at the potential Linux has to offer an alternative operating system and platform to Windows, .Net and Unix-based solutions like Solaris.

His interviews with senior industry executives include Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Linus Torvalds, the original developer of the Linux operating system, Sun CEO Scot McNealy, and Bill Zeitler, a senior vice president at IBM.

For numerous examples of his writing you can search under his name at the eWEEK Website at www.eweek.com.


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