SAN FRANCISCO – Keeping with tradition, I held my annual interview with Java creator James Gosling to get a sense of his views on the state of the Java language, platform and community.
Despite no longer working for Oracle, Java’s steward since it acquired Sun Microsystems, Gosling granted the interview and had a lot more to say than I expected. In fact, he let it all hang out. In a tale about as shameful as it was predictable, Gosling told how he simply could no longer take working at Oracle because his input was not given proper consideration, or, in some cases, any consideration at all.
I have been coming to JavaOne since it began in 1996, a year after Java appeared on the scene. I have not missed one year and I don’t think I have missed a year of interviewing Gosling. When I brought that up, Gosling joked about this being his first year not at the show. Again, a predictable outcome, as last year his mood was ominous about what the future might hold – not so much for Java, but for the Sun culture, workforce and for himself.
He knew Oracle’s history of acquisitions. And Oracle played its part to a T. It used classic takeover strategy. When you take over an entity – a village, some turf in the -hood, a company or whatnot – first you eliminate or pay off the chiefs, then you kill off or otherwise isolate the warriors, and you discredit or humiliate the wise men. Then, as the strategy goes, all the rest of the good folks will be scared spit-less and toe the line so they can keep their places in the status quo. For some reason, despite his obvious qualifications, being something of a hybrid warrior/wise man, Gosling had to go.
He created Java, but he was old school. He was part of the Sun that could never make money on Java. And Oracle was going to show the world just how to make some serious money on Java. Former Sun CEO, Jonathan Schwartz was forever talking about how to “monetize” Java, but obviously that didn’t happen fast enough.
When Oracle acquired Sun, the database giant cited Java as one of the “crown jewels” of the deal. And the company had its sights on just how it planned to polish and trade on that gem.
If this sounds negative, it is not meant to be; not toward Oracle. I don’t begrudge Oracle its success. Oracle’s is perhaps the second-best American success story of recent times behind Microsoft’s – certainly in the tech industry. And I heartily applaud that. Larry Ellison is a true self-made man, a magnate in his own right. I truly admire the man and his story. Yet, you name most any magnate and you’ll find some sort of arm twisting, sleight of hand or heavy lifting along with the hard work, risk taking, guts, smarts and luck that got them to the top. Bill Gates glommed onto some existing technology and rode the wave of a monopoly to reach his zenith, Ellison grabbed a hold of some code he co-wrote for a CIA database system and parlayed that into a technology behemoth. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil rode its control of oil refining and marketing to a monopoly causing it to be broken up, and Andrew Carnegie kept control of his industry-leading steel empire by occasionally hiring Pinkertons to bust strikes by busting strikers’ heads at his mills. All great American successes.
Big business means big moves. Oracle moved quickly when IBM decided to pass on acquiring Sun. And it moved quickly to assimilate the company and add Sun’s hardware and software to its arsenal to take over the tech world.
If he is to be believed – and I believe him – Gosling’s role in that world was to be more of a presence than a doer. A lot of folks would jump at that opportunity. Gosling says he couldn’t live with that, so he quit.
Unfortunately, many people will say he’s disgruntled or that it’s somehow sour grapes, or they’ll otherwise try to discredit him. But if you use a cell phone, desktop apps, e-commerce apps or practically any network or computing device you’re likely using Java at least once every day. So unless those folks that discredit the man are ready to give all those things up, they ought to just save it.
I happen to know Gosling after many years of interviewing him and interacting with him. He’s no kneejerk reactor. As a Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D. candidate, Gosling wrote a Unix version of Emacs and was recognized as model citizen in the school’s CS program.
My son, now a senior in high school, spent six weeks at CMU this past summer as an Advanced Placement/Early Action student taking college courses for credit. The program, aimed at bringing in kids the school has targeted as key prospects, tries to get as many of the kids to commit as possible. And their secret weapon? James Gosling. In an appeal to the kids, and mostly their parents, the school’s admissions folks listed Nobel laureates, Turing award winners and more as CMU grads. And a video of other prominent CMU grads displayed captains of industry, actors such as Ted Danson, Holly Hunter and Blair Underwood, as well as TV producer Steven Bochco among a host of other successful alumni. But it wasn’t until Gosling spoke of his days at CMU that parents began to reach for their checkbooks to consider forking over the $55,000 a year in tuition and room and board it costs to send their kids there – especially the ones with kids interested in the school’s famed engineering and computer science programs. Why? Gosling was legit, he was sound and he was convincing.
So don’t call him nutty, and don’t call him a quitter who couldn’t take the heat because Oracle had other ideas for his creation than he did. However, some might call him burnt. Possibly, but I don’t see it. Not in the enthusiasm in which he talks about the industry.
It’s just a shame. Buying Sun and relegating the creator of Java to a spokesman’s role is like buying the San Francisco 49ers of the ’80s and telling coach Bill Walsh, “We’re going to use your West Coast Offense, but we don’t want you having any say about how.” Or it would be like buying the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls and telling Tex Winter, the “perfector” of basketball’s famed Triangle Offense, to go sit down somewhere and smile while we use your system to win more championships – Lakers coach (and Jordan’s former Bulls coach) Phil Jackson, who had Winter as his assistant for more than 12 years, still uses the Triangle Offense today and just won an NBA championship.
Those guys were and are great minds, but also fierce competitors and they wanted in on the action. They needed to be in on it, and that’s what helped their teams win. So, too, is Gosling. When he saw he was being relegated to a stage presence and not an engineer/decision maker with some say in the future direction of his creation, he had enough.
Mik Kersten, creator of the open source Mylyn project, said, “Companies like IBM, Microsoft and more recently VMware have been driving fundamental innovation in how developers create and deploy applications. For innovators like James Gosling, the right home is often a company with that mix of longer term outlook and value for the hearts and minds of the developers.”
Indeed, Gosling said, “Oracle is driven by the spreadsheet. And there are things I admire about that. The problem is when you’re doing everything with spreadsheets and you’re trying to do innovation you end up with things you can’t really quantify.”
Meanwhile, Gosling says he still has no idea what he wants to do next. But he obviously still has a lot left in his tank. He has the skills, the scars and stories that would make for a great teacher. My hope is he goes back to CMU or maybe to Stanford or Berkeley (all schools my son is considering) or somewhere as a professor and helps shape a new generation of innovators.