Sun Needs to Open Source Java

By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2004-03-04

Sun Needs to Open Source Java

Is open sourcing Java a good idea for Sun? I think the answer is an unequivocal yes. I also think that the chances that Sun will actually open source it, especially since IBM suggested it is some where between slim and none. Darn it.

I mean, come on, Sun has been flipping and flopping about Eclipse, an open-source integrated development environment (IDE) which started out with IBM sponsorship, for ages now. And, lets face it. For all the words spent about Eclipse, an IDE isnt much of a deal compared to Java.

From where I sit, Sun has always been of two minds about open source. One part loves it, the other hates it. You can see the first side in Suns recent embrace of Linux on AMD processors. On the other hand, Sun embraced Linux once before, when it bought Cobalt Networks in a stock deal worth about a cool two billion dollars in 2000. Three years later, Sun closed the last of its Cobalt based network appliance line down.

I could go on with numerous other examples, but why bother, if you follow Sun at all you already know about their schizophrenic relationship with open source. IBM, on the other hand, has embraced open source.

Now, IBM doesnt support open source and Linux because of some starry-eyed idealism. IBM supports open source because its good programming and, far more importantly, its good business.

IBM realized that when you open source a program, you not only get a better program, you spread the software development cost risk. If IBM spends a hundred million on a program and it tanks, thats a hundred big ones down the drain. If IBM spends twenty million on an open-source project, Oracle contributes ten million, Apache shells out another five million and a programmer spends some $100-an-hour-time on the project and it all adds up to a hundred million of work, IBMs financial exposure is a lot lower.

Theres a reason why IBM never became a Linux distributor. IBM realized that it didnt have to spend much on Linux, compared to creating its own proprietary operating system or own it, to reap the benefits of both lower financial risk and higher service revenues.

Suns problem, as I see it, is that it has never made that jump. Deep in its heart, Sun believes that the only way itll see real profits is by selling SPARC boxes that run Solaris. You only have to look at IBM and Suns respective financial track records to see which approach is working out.

This isnt to say that IBM simply leeches off open source. They contribute quite a lot both directly via alphaWorks and indirectly by paying for Linux and other open-source development. Sun, on the other hand, while it has some open-source projects, Project JXTA for peer-to-peer networking and OpenOffice, keeps its distance from going whole-hog into open source. Thats why we have a StarOffice.

Next Page: Sun needs to do something about Java.

Dealing With Java

When it comes to Java though, Sun needs to do something. As Eric Raymond points out, Java has never really caught on in the open source world and Microsofts Visual Studio line has really gained traction in the Windows world. Historically, of course, where you really get good out of Java isnt in desktop programming, but on servers with Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE).

And how is Sun doing in the J2EE market? Not well. According to BZ Researchs, a research group that studies software development, 2003 Java Study, Sun ONE App Server, Suns J2EE Server, comes in fifth with 14 percent of the market. That follows IBMs WebSphere, BEAs WebLogic, Oracles application server and, oh the irony of it all, open source JBoss fourth place with 27 percent of the market.

That tells us several things. First, Sun may have the most control over Java, but it has not been able to turn that into commercial success. The second is that JBoss is clearly showing that you can make money from open sourcing elements of Java. And, last but really not least, IBM is already the biggest Java business dog.

Perhaps thats the real crux of the matter for Sun. Its afraid that if the Java Community Process (JCP) was really a group of equals and Java was open source, IBM would, as one Jakarta, Apaches open source Java tools effort, leader put it, "Take over Java."

You know what, I think that is a real issue. IBM could do it because IBM gets open source and knows how to take business advantage of it and Sun doesnt. But, Sun could learn. You see utilizing open source doesnt mean just sharing your code, it means changing your business model to take advantage of it. Yes, for Sun this would mean a change in business models to a services and support one rather than hardware sales centric one, but Sun could do it.

Despite Suns recent talks with IBM about opening up Java, I doubt they will. Sun doesnt work and play well with others unless its in charge and that wouldnt be the case if Java is open sourced.

Still, as someone who has liked SPARC, Solaris and Java over the years, I hope Sun does start really utilizing open source. I really think its the best way for both Sun and Java to prosper. And, if that means that Sun will have to follow IBMs open source example, instead of fighting against Big Blue, then so be it. Linux & Open Source Center Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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