News Analysis: Nothing less than Java's status as an open-source technology is at stake in an Oracle lawsuit against Google for the use of Java on the Android mobile OS platform.
Oracle has long held a unique
position in California's Silicon Valley. It is to some the most reviled
company in the valley. The lawsuit against Google for its use of Java
technology in its Android smartphone software is just the latest
example of Oracle's determination to crush any company it believes is
intruding on its turf.
It has left behind in its wake the remains of ruined companies, legal battles fought, and sometimes won. It is, in a word, corporate warfare at its worst
While Oracle's love of domination hasn't made
the news so much lately, there is certainly a long history of the
company's activities in this area. James Gosling, the creator of the
Java programming language, pointed out in his blog
that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is frequently referred to as, "Larry, the Prince of
Darkness" or "LPOD." Gosling also notes in his blog that the
CEO's approach to industry competition is best described by a saying
attributed to Genghis Kahn that is a favorite of Ellison's: "It's not
enough that we win; all others must lose."
Ellison has had a long history of suing other
companies, hostile takeovers and harsh treatment of employees. Over
the years he's had a long line of respected senior executives quit
because they simply can't take his aggressive style and hostile culture.
While I've only met Ellison a few times, I can
see their point. And while his arrogance and aggressiveness might be
bad enough, he takes it with him into his office and into Oracle's
business practices. For this reason, he sees open source as a real
threat. You can assume that efforts such as MySQL will vanish when
Oracle has a chance to pay attention to them. You can also assume that
Open Solaris will become a thing of the past. To the executives of
Oracle, all of these efforts look like lost revenue, and lost revenue
is something to be avoided at all costs.
Oracle has already said that it considers Java
to be the single most important asset it got when it acquired Sun at
the beginning of the year. There's little doubt that Oracle will try to
find a way to eat slowly away at Java's open-source status until the
company can effectively demand license fees from anything developed in
Java, despite the GPL that's in place.
So, what does this mean to Google and its
Android operating system? It's true that creating applications for
Android requires the Java Development Kit. In fact, you have to download
and install the JDK before you can even install the Android Development
Kit. So the applications on Android devices are indeed written in Java.
But isn't Java supposed to be an open-source environment? Wasn't
Android also supposed to provide the open-source vitality to the mobile
The answer to both questions is yes. But there
are caveats. There are some circumstances in which you need to get a
commercial license to use Java, and if you follow the requirements of
the Java community strictly, you're supposed to share your
applications. Google didn't require this, knowing that to get robust
development on Android devices, it needed to allow developers to
protect their applications.
While the details are unclear at this point, it
appears that Google didn't use the version of Java intended for mobile
devices but instead recompiled the Java virtual machine to run on the
Android platform. Oracle is claiming, among other things, that this
means that Google has to pay Oracle licensing fees.
Google, of course, says that Oracle's suit is baseless
and is proceeding to crank out Android in vast numbers. Oracle is
asking for an injunction to stop all of this. So does this mean that
all of those millions of Android devices out there will simply stop
working? It's unlikely.
Even Ellison doesn't have the ability to
make the courts order that Android devices be turned off and not used
by anyone, anywhere in the world. If he tried, it's unlikely that the
courts would agree. Those millions of owners of Android devices bought
their phones in good faith, and courts don't usually take a step that
could cost millions of people hundreds of dollars each. It's unlikely
that the courts will make the carriers stop servicing the devices for
the same reason.
So what will happen? First, expect a protracted
legal battle. Oracle is used to pillaging companies much smaller than
itself. This is the first time it's tried to take on Google. Google,
for its part, is a highly respected company with several cubic miles
of cash at its disposal. Despite the flack it's taken for its joint Net
Neutrality statement with Verizon, the company retains its Good-Guy
Complicating things is the fact that Sun never
attempted to make Google stop using Java, despite the fact that the
company has known about it for several years. It's hard to press a
patent infringement case when you've known about the situation, but
have done nothing to prevent it. While this doesn't overcome patent
law, it makes it harder to press your case later.
The probable outcome is that the two companies
will eventually settle, probably with an agreement to do a patent
license swap. But it'll be years of litigation and millions of dollars
before Oracle finally realizes that it's not going to be able to
overcome Google by sheer size or quantity of lawyers, and accept the
This will be one case in which Oracle won't be
able to make Google lose. But in the process, both companies will spend
their time distracted from developing new products and creating
innovations that they both need. It other words, it'll be a lose-lose
situation for all concerned.