Sun: It Will Open Java, But Offers No Details

"At this point, it's not a question of whether, it's a question of how," said Rich Green, Sun's recently returned software chief, during his opening keynote at last week's JavaOne conference in San Francisco.

After putting that dramatic stake in the ground, Sun offered few details on its plans for transitioning the complete Java platform to an open-source license. Executives said that they will need to work out a timeline and strategy with the participation of the Java community.

"Certainly, the JCP [Java Community Process] will be involved," Green said. "This can't happen in a matter of daysyou have to have the analysisbut I don't expect it will be an endless process."

Partners greeted the news with mild applause, but several said they expect it to have little practical impact on their business.

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"Should Java be open source? Sure. Is this going to change the community? No," said Gary Ebersole, CEO of Paremus, an infrastructure software maker in London. "Our customers don't care if the software is open source or not," he said.

"This will probably not have a big effect for us, but as a principle, we like open source," said Steve Knox, president of systems integrator IS Squared, Lynnwood, Wash. "Sun has done a poor job in some ways of getting its tools out there. Open-sourcing them gives them a chance to catch up."

Sun already has made significant chunks of the Java platform available as open source, including GlassFish, an application server that implements all of the recently released Java Enterprise Edition 5.

Sun added to its open-source portfolio last week by committing to soon release a pile of middleware software, including its Java Studio Creator and Java System Portal Server.

What open-source Java proponents are primarily after is not Java source code but greater licensing freedom for making use of the code. The promise of access to Sun's Java Virtual Machine (JVM) also is attractive to developers.

"The thing I'm really hopeful to see is performance advances," said Garry Tan, lead software engineer at Palantir Technologies, an early-stage analytics software maker in Palo Alto, Calif. "If this opens up work on the JVM and people can work on optimizing it, you can see performance problems being alleviated."

IBM, which has long encouraged Sun to loosen its grip on Java, greeted the open-source announcement with cautious enthusiasm. "We support the move and are eager to hear more details," said Tom Rosamilia, vice president of WebSphere application and integration middleware at IBM, Armonk, N.Y.

But another of Sun's major partner-rivals, SAP, was more hesitant. "We are a Java licensee and are happy with the license," said Shai Agassi, an executive board member of SAP, Walldorf, Germany. "We have a relationship with Sun around that. If they change the nature of that license model, we would study it."

Sun has announced similar intentions in the past, he noted, so SAP would need to see details before commenting further.

Whatever changes Sun makes, it is unlikely to relinquish too much of its ownership stake in Java. Despite emphasizing that all options are under consideration, Green suggested that Sun would be reluctant to hand over its key Java intellectual property to an independent organization, as IBM did when it open-sourced the foundation of Eclipse four years ago.

"Intellectual property is Sun's lifeblood, and generating new IP is what we're all about," Green said. "I'm not sure that would be the best model for ensuring that, but it's certainly something we'll consider."

Newly promoted Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz hammered the message that expanding the Java community is a core part of his strategy for restoring Sun to profitability. "It's obvious to us that there is a linkage between developer interest and infrastructure opportunity," Schwartz said at a Gartner conference that ran in parallel to JavaOne. "The issue isn't 'how much will a consumer pay us for Java?' It's 'how much will an enterprise pay us for support of the infrastructure that runs their business?' "

Sun's road map to open-source Java may be hazy, but its commitment to setting Java free will at least quell the wars that have dogged the platform.

"At minimum, those who have said they won't use Java unless it's under an OSI [Open Source Initiative] license will be able to use Java," Schwartz said. "It just grows the tent. What happens next? That's the beauty of open source. You just don't know."

BARBARA DARROW contributed to this story.