Sun Lets Java Go

Following news that Oracle will distribute and support Red Hat Linux, and that Novell and Microsoft are teaming up on Suse Linux, Sun Microsystems put the lid on a hat trick of open-source news with the announcement that they will be open-sourcing their Java platform. The move with Java is not Sun’s first foray into open-source; in an effort to regain the place it held before the dot.com bust, Sun has already successfully capitalized on the growth of this market. Last year Sun made the decision to open-source its Solaris 10 platform, and according to Forbes, “the company’s Solaris-based servers are now found in the majority of global Unix server shipments, enjoying a 56.9 percent share.” Sun would like to see increased Java development yield similar returns, as Sun’s executive vice president of software, Rich Green, put it, the company hopes to turn more developers into Java programmers, who may then create additional software to support Sun products. The real surprise in Sun’s announcement was not the move to open-source, but the licensing structure that the company chose to go with; instead of using its own Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL), Sun has opted to use the GNU Public License (GPL). Though this was a surprise at the time, it may now seem logical and in line with the idea behind open-sourcing Java in the first place. By choosing GPL, the more popular license, which also covers Linux distribution, Sun will only further the goal of getting Java in front of more developers.

The major question that is asked about making Java open-source is, Why bother? According to InformationWeek, “Java technology is perhaps the most pervasive collection of middleware and embedded system technologies of the last 50 years. It’s literally everywhere, from your PDA and cell phone to almost every major enterprise software back-end and e-commerce site.” With it already so ubiquitous why does Sun feel the need now to open it up? The short answer is that Sun believes that Java holds even more potential, and at the same time it realizes this potential will only be actualized if they let it go. The company is acknowledging that it has held back Java development. InformationWeek sees it this way, “Even with its widespread adoption, there are still some big issues for vendors wanting to use it [Java] in their new devices or companies as a deployment language for their technologies . . . Sun itself had become the bottleneck to the further adoption and growth of Java. Opening up the Java platform radically changes the Java marketplace.” In a list of what was causing the bottleneck, fear that Sun would one day begin to charge for use of Java was at the top; such fear is indeed central to this move. It has been suggested that developers wary of intellectual property or copyright issues have steered clear of Java use. By going open-source, Sun is putting such fears to rest. As Macworld puts it, “open-source developers who might have shied away from Java because of its commercial implications may now be tempted.” Sun is further tempting developers via their chosen licensing structure.

As mentioned earlier, in the Java move Sun will be using the GNU Public License (GPL) instead of its own Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL). This is the first time to date the company has done this, and was the surprise of the announcement. TechNewsWorld says that anyone knowing the company’s history, “would have expected Sun to open-source Java on Sun’s own terms — say, with a CDDL license, some kind of specialized terms for use, maybe a few intellectual property strings still attached . . . Amazingly, Sun didn’t do any of that. The Java open source license is identical to the Linux license. No specialized terms. No strings. Nothing new.” By opting for the GPL Sun is using a structure already familiar to the majority of open-source developers, and may, therefore, anticipate a more rapid adoption. However, there are reasons beyond this that may have led Sun to its choice. Not only is it more likely to be adopted because of the comfort factor, Java will, by virtue of this licensing, see new avenues of distribution. According to ZDNet, Laurie Tolson, Sun’s vice president of Java developer products and programs, says that Sun hopes that GNU/Linux distributions such as Debian and Ubuntu will bundle Java into their operating systems and so take the development environment into new markets. Furthermore, as well as the license offering protection to Java developers, it also protects Sun from its rivals. VNUnet stated that, “Sun’s choosing the GPL will make open source Java less attractive to commercial vendors that want to use the code as part of proprietary software. IBM, for instance, could mix the code with its WebSphere Real Time Java SE implementation, but would then be required to disclose any changes to the code.” It should be noted that fear of competitors, such as IBM, is often stated as one of the reasons Sun has so closely guarded Java.

Of the decision, Sun President Jonathan Schwartz wrote, “I want to put one nagging item to rest. By admitting that one of the strongest motivations to select the GPL was the announcement made last week by Novell and Microsoft, suggesting that free and open source software wasn’t safe unless a royalty was being paid. As an executive from one of those companies said, ‘free has to have a price.’ That’s nonsense.” Though this comes off as a bit altruistic, it should be noted that Sun’s choice of licenses does indeed help the open-source community and lend credibility to the GPL. As ZDNet notes, moving to GPL, “makes the announcement a key turning point. Sun, a big company dedicated to increasing its revenue and profits, chose the GPL for a key asset, citing its business advantages. This is something that advocates have been pointing out for some time, the idea that the viral nature of the GPL is a protection for intellectual property, because it places licensees under an obligation to release their enhancements. Now Sun has bought the concept.” However, it is obvious that altruism was not the only motivation. Michael Cote, an analyst with RedMonk, told the Associated Press that, “Sun profits from the Java ecosystem thriving . . . Whether it’s their hardware sales or their service sales, by open-sourcing Java they’re hoping to ensure its longer life and ensure it’s what the community wants it to be.” Sun is trying to kill more than one bird with a single stone.

A more complete version of this posting, with accompanying informational charts, journal articles, and research reports can be found at the website of Analyst Views Weekly.

More information on this topic can be found in the Linux & Open Source section of Northern Light’s Software, Computers, & Services Market Intelligence Center

And in the following articles:

Sun Opens Java
Newsbytes News Network, November 13, 2006
Sun Microsystems Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., has released the source code to its widely used Java programming language. Analysts see the move as one that should widen the reach of the already-prevalent language. The announcement also comes after years of Sun declining to open Java, even as Sun released many of its other technologies, including the Solaris operating system, as open source.

Sun Opens Source Code, Sets Java Free: Programming Language Now Nearly Universal
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, November 13, 2006
Making good on a hazy 6-month-old promise, Sun Microsystems starting today is providing free access to most of the source code for its popular Java programming language. By releasing the code under the most common type of license in the open-source community and relinquishing control, Sun is acknowledging the rising importance of the software development community, where programmers share their code with each other for free, and is hoping it will help fuel the Santa Clara company’s financial turnaround.

Sun Makes Java Tech. Open-Source Project
Xinhua News Agency, November 13, 2006
The announcement represents one of the largest additions of computer code to the open-source community — and it marks a major shift for a company that had once fiercely protected the source code used in 3.8 billion cell phones, supercomputers, medical devices and other gadgets. Santa Clara-based Sun said it is making nearly all of Java’s source code — excluding small pockets of code that aren’t owned by Sun — available under the GNU General Public License. The same type of license also covers the distribution of the core, or kernel, of the popular open-source operating system Linux, which competes against Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system.

Sun Reveals Details of Open-Source Java
Software Development Times, September 1, 2006
Sun Microsystems announced at the LinuxWorld Conference here in mid-August that it will open the source code for most of the Java Micro Edition platform by the end of this year and that Java Standard Edition would follow soon after. Alan Brenner, Sun’s vice president of mobile and embedded, said at a press conference that with the entire Java ME team working exclusively on transitioning the language’s code to open source, all but parts of the CDC stack will be ready this year. “There are pieces of the upper stack on the CDC side that probably won’t be finished,” stated Brenner.

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