Java is free at last, now what?

You can now get an open-source full Java implementation. Too bad Java isn't as compelling as it once was

Java started down the road to openness more than a year ago. Today it's finally free.

According to Red Hat, its open source IcedTea Project has passed Sun's Java Technology Compatibility Kit, a rigorous suite of tests designed to verify that a Java implementation conforms to the full Java specification. That makes it official: IcedTea does everything that Java is supposed to do, and it's fully open source.

It's impossible to overstate the significance of this milestone. At last, a full-blooded Java implementation is available under a 100 percent Free Software license. At last, the open source community can put aside any lingering objections to developing in Java.

So is this it -- the beginnings of Java's golden age? I wonder.

In terms of raw popularity, it's hard to argue that Java has been anything but a runaway success. Doubtless it will continue to enjoy a loyal following among enterprise application developers for years to come. Despite its newly relaxed license terms, however, actually growing Java's installed base could prove more challenging.

I wouldn't be the first to argue that Sun missed the boat by not releasing Java under an open source license sooner. As Apache Project co-founder Brian Behlendorf said in 2006, "I think had they done it, they would have established Java further as the language of choice by so many more people."

The Linux community, in particular, has long viewed Java with ambivalence. Sun makes prepackaged binaries of the JDK available to Linux users at no charge, but that simply isn't good enough for Linux distributions that bundle only software that's available under a Free Software license, such as Debian and the Red Hat-sponsored Fedora project.

The lack of a proper Free Software version of Java has left Linux application developers with a dilemma. Should they go ahead and code in Java, taking advantage of its rich collection of cross-platform APIs, knowing that by doing so they will alienate that portion of the Linux community that objects to proprietary software licenses? Or should they choose another tool?

Take note: Developers have no shortage of free and open source tools to choose from. In an ironic twist, some have even preferred to work with Mono, the Novell-sponsored open source implementation of Microsoft's .Net platform, rather than fall into the so-called Java Trap.

Removing Java's license restrictions, then, tackles only half of the problem. The larger challenge is for Java to remain competitive in a developer tools market that's significantly different than the one that existed when the platform launched in 1995.

The problem, as I see it, is twofold. First, as the Java platform has matured, it has become incredibly complex. Today it's possible to do anything with Java, but no one developer can do everything -- there simply aren't enough hours in the day to learn it all. Second, and most important, even as Java has stretched outward to embrace more concepts and technologies -- adding APIs and language features as it goes -- newer, more lightweight tools have appeared that do most of what Java aims to do. And they often do it better.

In the 1990s, Sun told us "the network is the computer," and Java was to be the tool that enabled this new idea. Today, RIAs (rich Internet applications) are all the rage, but the buzz isn't about applets and JavaBeans; it's about JavaScript, Flash, and Ruby on Rails. Google is the leading Internet company, and the language of choice for its application platform isn't Java, but Python.

It's true that Java ME powers millions of mobile phones, but that has largely been a matter of expediency. As 3G networks and full-fledged browsers for handhelds become commonplace, there simply won't be any reason to run applications on the phones themselves. If mobile computing switches over to a pure thin-client model, there will be little use for Java.

Meanwhile, at this year's JavaOne conference, Sun demoed JavaFX, its new UI design component for the platform, along with its associated scripting language, JavaFX Script. Is that really what we were all hoping for? New APIs? Still more syntax to remember?

Don't get me wrong. I do believe Java is a valuable platform, and certainly a powerful one. But the decision to release the JDK under a free and open source license casts light on the bigger issue for the Java platform, which is the competitive crisis it now faces.

Imagine if Java were released today, brand-new, as is. That's almost how it is for the Free Software community. Java is now an option for Free Software development, for the very first time. Now ask yourself this: If Java really were released today, brand-new, would it be a tool you'd choose?

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