Java users wary of fragmentation

The applause that greeted Sun Microsystems officials last week when they said the company will offer Java to the open-source community turned to concern as some users fretted over whether the programming language will split into multiple versions.

Sun executives confirmed the long-anticipated open-source move during the JavaOne conference here last week, although they said they still need to devise a detailed plan to ensure that Java isn't put on diverging paths.

Java consistency is essential to David Holberton, a J2EE developer at a large aerospace company he asked not be named. Currently, the versions of the Java Virtual Machine the company's J2EE applications run on are consistent, Holberton said.

An open-source Java implementation "opens up innovation, but I'm concerned about fragmentation," he said. Nonetheless, Holberton added that he's "fairly confident" Sun can avoid any splitting of the code, citing the company's longtime efforts to ensure a consistent development environment.

Several other users, including Haroon Rafique, a systems developer at the University of Toronto, also expressed concern that Java could head down different paths once developers get access to the source code 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.

"I think the 'how' is going to be very important," said Andrew Smith, a systems architect at Innovative Software Engineering in Iowa. Smith wants to know how Sun will preserve compatibility, how testing will be handled once the code is made open-source, and what will happen if a variety of distributions emerge as they did with Linux.

Sun has yet to directly respond to such user concerns. The company didn't provide a plan for preventing multiple Java versions last week, nor did it disclose a timetable for the open-source effort or any licensing details at JavaOne.

"There wasn't that much detail to the announcement," said Ari Kaplan, a senior consultant at Datalink, a consulting firm in Chanhassen, Minn. Kaplan said that despite the lack of specifics, he expects users will, for the most part, welcome Sun's plan because of the growing corporate popularity of open-source software.

However, Kaplan, who is also president of the Independent Oracle Users Group, added that users often express concern about how well open-source software is supported by vendors.

"The mainstream is generally positive as long as the quality, scalability, security and compatibility remain intact," he said. "Those things still remain to be seen."

At the conference, Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz said he gave Richard Green, who heads the company's software division, the go-ahead to develop a plan for releasing Java's source code. Schwartz said that nothing will stop the open-source plan, which he contended will broaden usage of the Java language by developers. He said he also expects that the move will create new opportunities for the struggling computer maker.

Mark Driver, an analyst at Gartner, argued that the open-source statements from Sun executives were made "for effect" and that the company doesn't necessarily plan to make Java open-source.

"They know they need to open-source Java to fulfill their larger promise to embrace open-source," Driver said. However, he added, Sun is fearful that providing open-source access to Java may prompt Microsoft, The Apache Software Foundation or another vendor to create implementations that aren't compatible with the current version.

"They think the existing open-source model does not give them the guarantee of the lack of fragmentation," Driver said. "To their credit, they understand that Java is a success today because ... they have this giant stick and they can literally force compliance."

Jeff Kottke, a Java engineer at Dairyland Healthcare Solutions welcomed the open-source idea. "It seems like open-source groups are able to put out better code that works faster and cleaner," he said.

Likewise, Chris Fogel, a Java developer at a mobile wireless company that he asked not be named, predicted that an open-source Java would lead to wider adoption of the language.

Fogel and others point out that Java already has a community development process -- the Java Community Proc-ess -- that is overseen by Sun, which can approve or reject any proposed changes to the code. But it won't be clear how any open-source move will affect development "until it's actually out in the [open-source] community," Fogel said. That's when you really find out, he added.

Todd R. Weiss contributed to this report.

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