Vendors Debate Perks of an Open Java

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2004-07-01

Vendors Debate Perks of an Open Java

SAN FRANCISCO—What was billed as a possible rumble turned out to be little more than a discussion among rivals, as industry leaders and observers debated the merits of open-sourcing Java at the JavaOne Conference here Thursday.

Included in the panel were Java creator James Gosling; Rob Gingell, chief engineer at Sun Microsystems Inc.; Rod Smith, an IBM fellow and vice president of emerging technologies; Brian Behlendorf, founder and chief technology officer at CollabNet Inc.; Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford University; Justin Shaffer, vice president and chief architect at MLB Advanced Media LLP; and James Governor, principal analyst at RedMonk LLC.

In some ways, it was Smith who actually jump-started this debate, or at least accelerated it, when he wrote an open letter to Suns Gingell in February inviting Sun to join IBM in creating an open-source implementation of Java.

During the panel, Gingell got a chance to respond publicly to the overture. "So, what does the verb to open-source mean?" he asked. "If open source is an answer, please tell me the problem?"

In an interview after the panel, Jonathan Schwartz, Suns president and chief operating officer, said Gingells response was right on, adding, "You havent even described to me the problem for which you said open source is a solution."

Linux & Open Source Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols thinks Sun and IBM need to quit their squabbling over who is more open source. Click here for more.

Shaffer, the only end-user representative on the panel, echoed Gingells sentiments, essentially saying if it aint broke, dont fix it.

"What is it that youre really trying to accomplish?" Shaffer asked. "Why take something thats already working and working well and put it at risk?" he added, to loud applause from the large crowd.

The crowds size indicated developers interest in the open-source issue, as last-day keynote addresses typically are not as well-attended as earlier ones.

A key point of the Java open-source discussion revolved around compatibility, with all on the panel calling it paramount.

"The fundamental promise is that Java programs will not be lied to by things claiming to be Java," Gingell said.

"Java is not just about compatibility and thinking about parts of Java to open-source," IBMs Smith said. "Look at J2SE [Java 2 Standard Edition], open-source it; open-source the TCKs [technology compatibility kits] around it."

As the world has seen open source evolve, "Were hitting an interesting inflection," Smith said. "We want to see an open-source Java married with other open-source projects."

Next Page: The merits of peer review.

Peer Review

CollabNets Behlendorf said peers can improve technology by reviewing each others work. "We believe in the sunshine model that open peer review leads to better implementations," he said.

Stanfords Lessig said, "The law has tools independent of these open-source licenses that can achieve compatibility."

RedMonks Governor, quoting Winston Churchill to get his point across, paraphrased the diplomats comment that democracy is the worst form of government—except for all of the others that have been tried. "Well, the JCP [Java Community Process] may be the worst governance model, but its the best one weve tried," Governor said to a round of applause from the audience.

Smith rhetorically asked: "How many would buy an incompatible implementation?"

Lessig later turned that statement back on him, saying, "Is delivering a system thats not compatible good business? I believe it is, if theres somebody who doesnt want it to work."

Java creator Gosling quickly retorted: "Theres at least one example of that."

Gingell said he fears a day when Java programs have to include features such as "system dot check with attorney. … Code doesnt read trademarks, it doesnt read licenses."

Click here to read about Sun CEO Scott McNealys keynote at JavaOne, where he told IBM, "Do your own IP."

Gosling said Sun already is quite open with Java. "All the implementations are published," he said. "You can find all the sources of J2SE and you can find all the sources of all the APIs. "

"What people mean is to allow for open-source implementations of those specs," Behlendorf said. "Well see that with Groovy [a scripting language for the Java Virtual Machine]. Its a test case."

Gingell said, "People ask what our commitment is to Java—we bet the company on it. What is it that can be improved? How can we improve the rate and device of change?"

Gosling said the best way to effect change is to "participate … go over to and vote."

"Look at the history of Sun," he said after the panel. "The history of Sun is made by a bunch of guys who hang out in the open-source community."

Meanwhile, BEA Systems Inc.s chief technology officer, Scott Dietzen, said Wednesday night: "We are publicly in favor of open-sourcing J2SE."

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