Java should be open-source, creator says

If pressed to vote yea or nay, the "father of Java" said last week that he would cast his ballot in favour of making his creation more open-source, even though he recognizes that some of his Sun Microsystems colleagues make strong counterarguments.

During an interview at the JavaOne conference, James Gosling, the Sun vice president who unleashed the programming language eight years ago, said he thinks Java has reached the point where market pressure would ensure that no "bully" could succeed in introducing incompatible technology that could fracture a developer community that has grown to value Java's consistency and interoperability.

"My personal feeling is that we're over the edge, but I also feel a little nervous about that," Gosling said. "There are still all kinds of opportunities for mayhem."

Not Ready for Leap

One prominent executive who isn't ready to take the leap that Gosling favours is Jonathan Schwartz, executive vice president of software at Sun. He said the problem with open-source is the "tyranny of the volume leader."

"If Java was open-source, Microsoft could take it, deliver it as they saw fit and drive a definition of Java that was divergent from the one that the community wanted to be compatible," he said. "And to the victor would go the spoils of that nefarious action."

Sun formally established the Java Community Process (JCP) in 1998 to develop and revise Java technology, and it now claims that more than 650 members participate. Under the JCP, intellectual property is protected by a license that requires anyone using a Java spec to demonstrate compatibility with the technology's reference implementation.

Even though Sun has worked to make its standardization process more open -- and, along with JCP members, to allow for more technologies to be made available under an open-source licensing and development model -- it has yet to make core elements of Java open-source, Gosling said.

Sun's lawsuit claiming that Microsoft Corp. violated its contract by trying to introduce a version of Java that was incompatible with its specifications has made some colleagues particularly sensitive to the open-source issue, Gosling said. He added that there are still enough differences of opinion at Sun, which tends to be a consensus-driven company, that he can't predict when or if Java will be made open-source.

"There are days when I feel like it's going to be tomorrow. There are days when I feel like it's going to be never," Gosling said. "If I talk to the lawyers involved in the Microsoft case, I always come back completely horrified, (thinking) if we ever do this, we're screwed."

The open-source debate over Java is nothing new at Sun. Gosling and others at the company acknowledged that the discussion started long before the growing popularity of the open-source Linux operating system caused a commotion in the industry. But the debate has heated up more recently, Gosling said.

Rob Gingell, chief engineer at Sun and chairman of the JCP program, said an argument erupted via e-mail about a month ago among about 100 Sun field engineers who work with customers. On the open-source question, they wondered, "Why don't we just say yes?" But he said that on further examination, he realized that they were referring more to the open-source style of development than the intellectual property issues associated with open-source.

"Given its importance to the future of my company and our shareholders' stake in our company, I'm not willing to be risky with it," Gingell said. "I'm going to want to understand it and be able to be definitive about it within a reasonable risk profile before I'm willing to let that go."

Gosling said he didn't become swayed that Java was ready for open-source until about a year ago, and he said he's not convinced he's right. He said he has made his opinion known internally for quite some time, although he hasn't made a point of discussing his views publicly.

"We actually do open-source a lot of stuff -- but not the core bits," Gosling said. "And we've talked about slicing up the core so that some of it's open-source, and by and large, that isn't an easier problem than doing the whole thing."

Schwartz said the online community that Sun introduced last week is "filled to the gills with open-source projects with Java." He also said that he, Gosling and others just published the Java Research License, which allows more open-source development on core parts of Java.

"Anyone who wants to experiment with core parts of Java -- everything under the guts of the (virtual machine), the language constructs themselves -- is more than welcome to do so," Schwartz said. "But they can't introduce them into the commercial domain."

Gosling, too, is well aware of the potential pitfalls if Sun takes the open-source step. "Open-source ways of dealing with software work really well so long as you get this sort of collegial atmosphere," he said. "If you happen to have a bully on the block who is really strong, it doesn't work."

Sun's Gosling Discusses State of Java

Sun Microsystems Inc. Vice President James Gosling, the creator of Java, last week spoke with Computerworld about the company's latest Java activities. Excerpts follow:

Those who have been to previous JavaOne conferences have noted the declining attendance. Do you think that signals waning interest in Java?

I don't think there's any interconnection between the population decline and what's going on in the Java world. The socioeconomic state of the world pretty much explains everything, I think. If you talk to people about the energy of what they are doing, I actually think it's higher today.

Sun talked a lot about working to boost the Java population from 3 million to 10 million developers. Do you think that's a realistic goal?

I think it's a very realistic goal. It's a tough one, and a lot depends on how you think of the goal. You've got this huge educational system that is feeding the world with pre-educated Java developers. If you counted up all the people who have learned to program in Java, we are way ahead of 10 million.

Over what time frame will 10 million be achievable?

I'd be happy in five years. It wouldn't be at all surprising if it happened a lot faster than that.

Like many companies, Sun is introducing a tool, code-named Project Rave, that seeks to reduce the complexity of developing in Java. Have you been involved in that?

Yeah. We tend to come out of the gate with something that works really well at large scale, and at small scales it's too complicated. . . . So there's a dual goal here. One is to make it so that the people at the lower end can use a lot of this infrastructure that was really designed around high-end deployments. There's also this other subtext to it, which is that the things that start small, if they succeed, they always become large. So with these tools, you can do systems that start small, start easy, but they can grow up and turn into big sophisticated systems.

Opinions on Open-Source Java Mixed

Some of the prominent vendors that work on Java standards through Sun Microsystems' Java Community Process (JCP) favour Java being turned over to the open-source community. Many corporate developers, however, have some strongly divergent opinions on the matter.

The following is a sampling of these developers' views:

- Clay Mathur, senior staff programmer, Charles Schwab & Co., San Francisco: "When you're trying to make reusable code, it's better to have standards. I prefer the standardization that the Java Community Process provides, rather than everybody doing their own thing."

- Ramu Kannan, director of information technology at Humana Inc., Louisville, Ky.: "Sun is not the company that it used to be. Java should be open. . . . Also, Sun is driving a lot of Java in a certain direction, which I don't think the rest of the community may want."

- Tom Van Atta, manager, Unix/Basis Services, The Scotts Co., Marysville, Ohio: "I think the JCP is the right way to maintain it. If it becomes open-source, it'll be too hard to control."

- Bob Celmer, technical fellow, AutoZone, Memphis: "I would like to see it go open-source, because there are those of us who would like to have greater visibility into how the technology works -- particularly with new things."

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