Sun Microsystems' announcement that it plans to eventually open-source Java reflects CEO Jonathan Schwartz's belief that the key to growth at his struggling company is to encourage developers to move Sun technology in new directions.
By making Java open-source, "it just grows the tent; it just grows the market opportunity," said Schwartz, who met with reporters and analysts Tuesday. "With respect to what happens next, that's the beauty of open-source; you just don't know."
His comments followed the announcement that Sun plans to open-source Java, made at the JavaOne event. But that announcement, made on stage at the Moscone Center by Richard Green, Sun's executive vice president of software, was short on details. "It isn't a question of whether, it is a question of how," Green said.
The answer to that question is of interest to Haroon Rafique, a systems developer at the University of Toronto, who doesn't want to see Java head off on different development paths once developers get access to it under whatever open-source plan Sun devises. "My concerns would be if they do open-source it -- and don't keep control over it -- then you are going to have competing implementations," said Rafique. The result would come at the cost of compatibility, he said.
A fork in code development is something Sun officials said they want to avoid, and they pointed to it as one of the problems they expect to address before releasing the code. They also didn't want to be pinned down on a time frame for any open-source move. Schwartz said the goal is to release it "as soon as possible."
But before an open-source release happens, Sun officials said, they have a lot of parties to consult. "This has to be done as a group," said Green. "The community process is critical."
For existing Java users, the benefits of open-sourcing are less than clear.
Mathew Ginther, an integration architect with a utility firm who asked that the company not be identified, said any decision to open-source Java is "no practical help" to him but it does say more about the technology's direction. It means that "the Java suite will keep maturing and maybe even grow more rapidly," he said.
Many of the tools available to Java developers are open-source, said Ginther. "That's the way that the community that's associated with Java is going, so they are embracing that."
Sun's announcement isn't surprising in light of other open-source actions by the company, which last year released its Solaris operating system as open-source and published the specifications for its eight-core multithreaded chip, the UltraSparc T1.
Schwartz Tuesday also lowered expectations for any quick turnaround in the company's balance sheet, which has improving revenues but net losses. "Revenue is a lagging indicator of your success with the development community," he said when asked about the company's efforts to return to profitability.