Recent news that IBM has thrown down the gauntlet in challenging Sun to join it in creating an open-source implementation of Java has stimulated one of the most significant debates in the IT industry. In an open letter to Sun, IBM called for the originator and owner of Java to take part in a project to author an open-source Java. The letter was written by IBM Vice President of Emerging Technologies Rod Smith to Suns chief engineer, Rob Gingell, and it was in response to an article written by eWEEKs Darryl K. Taft.
Were glad to see that the long-festering question of Suns control of Java is being raised in the forum of public debate. The Java Community Process, although it affords many of the benefits of open source, has long been considered a half-measure by the development community. As Rick Ross, president of Javalobby, an organization of thousands of Java developers, has noted, it is not possible to forget that Sun ultimately controls the Java brand. This fact has proved to be a sticking point for open-source developers. If Sun is unwilling to commit completely to the open-source community, the community is unwilling to commit completely to Sun.
The result is a technology that, despite its considerable merits and success, has not achieved its full potential. Further, Suns approach to Java has not done much for Sun, the company, either, if the companys performance in recent quarters is any indication.
To move from the JCP to open source, Sun must answer the question of how committed it is to anything other than its proprietary SPARC-Solaris platform. In the past, McNealy and Co. have often wanted to benefit from the "halo effect" of open standards and open source by voicing commitment without fundamentally altering Suns SPARC-Solaris-centric business model.
Releasing Java to the open-source community would be such a commitment—and an uncharacteristic leap of faith for Sun. But as we have pointed out previously, Sun is at the point in its corporate history where it must begin to "think different," to borrow an expression.
It is one thing for Sun Chairman and CEO Scott McNealy to assert, as he did in his Comdex keynote in 2002, that the company invites its customers to look at Suns technology stack and "take out any piece you dont like and put someone elses in." Its quite another thing to make the Java platform, one of the key pieces of that stack, which Sun offers to enterprise users, genuinely open to that competitive process and able to benefit from the collaborative vigor and collective scrutiny of every interested party.
We urge Sun to carefully consider the merits of developing an open-source implementation of Java. From where we stand, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and Sun should take up IBMs challenge.
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