A Sun Microsystems executive says the company is ‘months’ away from releasing its trademark Java programming language under an open source licence.
Simon Phipps, chief open source officer for Sun, says that the company is ruminating over two major issues: how to keep Java compatible, and how to ensure that no particular company uses market forces as muscle for its own implementation, a move that would threaten Java’s ‘write once, run anywhere’ mantra.
"Maintaining both of those dimensions of compatibility is imperative, because the Java market is a huge successful open market, in which many companies are serving many other companies," Phipps says. "You would not want to introduce a change that made Java less compatible in any way."
Sun announced in May it would release an open source version of Java, about one month after Jonathan Schwartz replaced Scott McNealy as CEO. The leadership change pushed the issue of whether to open source Java to how to make the transition, Phipps says.
The move will not be easy, says a former Sun employee. The company has a rigid old guard of middle managers who have opposed open sourcing Java, says Denese Cooper, who worked on open source projects at Sun for six years and is on the board of the Open Source Initiative.
"What Sun has to do in order to make it work is either retarget or somehow indoctrinate these people, who have been guarding the gates against viable open sourcing of Java for all these years," Cooper says. "It is going to be interesting to see what other moves management will have to make to make that happen."
Phipps says that the key to maintaining compatibility will lie in licensing and governance, two areas under discussions. As of yet, no decisions have been made.
"I would not pretend to know what the answer is, or what combination of licensing and governance to use," Phipps adds.
In the short term, Phipps says making Java open source would not have much of an effect on the company. Longer range, Sun would stand to benefit from more innovation with the platform and broader adoption.
Many observers say Sun’s moves are late, as Microsoft has gained ground with its own .NET and C# programming languages.
Brian Behlendorf, co-founder of the Apache Web Server Project, says Sun and Java would have benefited earlier from distributed debugging and innovation plus a better reputation for reliability, especially on the server side.
"I think had Sun done it, it would have established Java further as the language of choice by so many more people," Behlendorf adds.
One area that will need to change is the Java Community Process (JCP), whereby Java standards are set, a prominent free software developer says.
The JCP is too secretive and restrictive, says Dalibor Topic, who leads the Kaffe project, which has been working for years on an open source version of Java.
"I do not value spending my time wrestling with Sun’s legal department to find out if I can talk about something with my peers," he wrote in an e-mail, soon after Sun announced plans to open source Java.