Will Sun Open-Source Java?

 
 
By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2006-04-30
 
 
 

New Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartzs first 100 days at the helm are about to get interesting. First up: managing an internal debate over whether the company should open-source Java.

According to sources inside Sun, an ongoing debate over whether to open-source Java is coming to a head with the JavaOne conference looming May 16. Schwartz, who led the open-sourcing of Solaris, could not be reached for comment on the matter.

A former Sun exec calls on the company to open-source Java. Click here to read more.

Nevertheless, opponents of the idea are trying "to get time with Schwartz now that he is CEO so they can get their point of view across before the JavaOne conference in May, where some speculate he may announce the open-sourcing of Java," said a source close to Sun who requested anonymity.

What Schwartz will ultimately decide on Java remains to be seen, but its another item on his long to-do list. Schwartz, who took the reins from Scott McNealy April 24, has to keep Wall Street happy and structure Sun so it will be consistently profitable. Sun hasnt reported an annual profit since 2001 and had a loss of $217 million for the fiscal third quarter of 2006, which ended March 26.

Meanwhile, skeptics of Schwartz abound. Financial services company JP Morgan, of New York, issued a research note April 25 that said it is "concerned that Jonathan Schwartz may bring less change to Sun than an outside candidate could have."

For his part, Schwartz remains confident. "First, were in an industry that is only going to grow. For the rest of our lives, the network is only going to expand, as is the demand for the products which Sun builds. Sun is in a great position today to capitalize on this network growth," he told eWEEK in an e-mail interview. "Were ready to deliver."

Against that backdrop, Schwartz will have to weigh the future of Java. Schwartz has not balked at making some big decisions in his previous roles at Sun, most notably getting the Santa Clara, Calif., company to reverse course and commit to a version of Solaris for x86 hardware, and later open-sourcing the companys flagship operating system.

So far, Sun has resisted many calls to open-source Java. The reason: Sun fears doing so will open the doors for competitors to grab and change Java, resulting in the kernel forking and compatibility problems.

John Loiacono, Suns former executive vice president of software, who recently took an executive position at Adobe Systems, of San Jose, Calif., admitted as much in an exclusive interview with eWEEK. "One of the projects we were working on was how far we should go with opening Java, to the point of absolutely open-sourcing it. But we always came back to the question of who we were ultimately appeasing with the move and how such a move benefits Sun customers and shareholders," Loiacono said.

Other former Sun executives have a different take. Peter Yared, a developer who was Suns chief technologist for network identity before leaving in 2003 to become the CEO of San Francisco-based ActiveGrid, said the big question is how Java benefits Suns shareholders today, especially since "Sun doesnt make any money on it," he said.

"It is losing momentum against open-source up-and-comers like LAMP [Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP/ Python/Perl]. They can continue to get the same certification revenue by licensing the Java trademark," Yared said.

Yared has long called for Sun to open Java, which, he said, is "great on the back end, but LAMP is great on the Web tier, as Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Flickr, MySpace and Friendster have shown. Sun should endorse PHP and go one step forward and make sure the P languages run great on the JVM [Java virtual machine] by open-sourcing Java."

The proof for this? IBM and Oracle both have strongly endorsed PHP in their architectures, and it has not cannibalized their Java middleware sales.

eWEEK also has learned that there are ongoing discussions within Sun about possible changes to the licensing terms for Java, while negotiations are under way for strategic partnerships around Java and the products and services associated with that.

As CEO, Schwartz is now in a position to make the call to open-source Java, unfettered. But some of the concerns that have prevented Sun from truly open-sourcing Java in the past linger. One issue cited by insiders: If Sun open-sources Java, Microsoft could take it and slap it into Windows Vista. Microsofts licensing agreements with Sun to use Java source code and compatibility test suites generate revenue for the company and could be altered or voided if open-sourced, sources said.

There are worries inside Sun that an open Java could allow Microsoft and IBM to outmuscle the company on the marketing side, a source said. "Its a two-edged sword: The more freedom you give people because its good and you get more usage, the more people decide they dont want to live by the rules of compatibility and they break away," Loiacono said.

But ActiveGrids Yared disagreed, saying that all this talk of Java getting fractured is overblown. "Open-sourcing Java does not mean that Sun relinquishes the Java trademark. If you pass the Java compatibility test, you will get the right to call it Java. If not, you call it something else. Microsoft has already done that, first with J++ and then with C#, and no one thinks either of these are Java," he said.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.

Rocket Fuel