Sun Charts Its Future as Java Turns 10

Opinion: As Java enters its second decade, Sun is facing a future that includes less control over what happens with the technology. But given Sun's vision of the future, does it really matter?

Sun Microsystems Java has just turned 10 years old. And it seems Sun is already planning for how to handle the difficulties of adolescence.

While there wasnt much directly said about Java at Suns Network Computing quarterly event in Washington, D.C., last week, Sun CEO Scott McNealy and Executive Vice President John Loiciano made it clear that Sun is getting its business model ready for Java—and much of the rest of the companys software portfolio—to be released into the open-source wilds.

While Sun hasnt exactly kept Java on a tight leash over the past decade, the company has been a very protective parent. But the degree of control Sun can exert over Java has been eroding for some time—especially as open-source implementations of Java start to gain traction. While Sun has not directly moved to open-source Java, it has not put up much of a fight about others doing so.

/zimages/5/28571.gifOpen-source advocates have long sought to open-source Java. Click here to read more.

First there was Marc Fleurys JBoss, which completed J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) compatibility certification last July. Then came JOnAS, ObjectWebs open-source J2EE server, which Sun certified in February.

And the Apache Software Foundation continues development of Geronimo, a project that aims to create a fully certified J2EE "container" (the core element of a J2EE application server) with an Apache license—meaning it could be freely incorporated into any software project. While JBoss clearly has the current momentum in the open-source J2EE space, an Apache-licensed J2EE engine could spawn a thousand derivative projects that could claim J2EE compatibility on their own without having to go through Suns Compatibility Test Kit gateway.

/zimages/5/28571.gifDoes J2EE matter? Click here to read why Oracles Ted Farrell says it does.

And while theres been plenty of background discussion about Sun and the Java Community Process putting J2SE (Java 2 Standard Edition)—the core of Java—into some form of open source, the ASF may beat Sun to the punch. A group within the ASF (including Geir Magnusson Jr., the chair of Apaches Jakarta Project, the umbrella for many of the ASFs Java efforts) is now exploring the development of a community-developed J2SE run time.

The project, code-named Harmony, got its kickoff in a proposal submitted to the ASF Incubator Project Management Committee on May 6. If approved (and it appears that Harmony has plenty of support), Apache will set a working group down the road toward a totally open implementation of J2SE 5.

So, once theres a certified, open-source, freely reusable and pluggable version of Java available, what does that mean to Suns Java licensing business? I asked Loiciano that question in a conversation we had at Suns Network Computing event.

"Its a question of, What is a brand worth to people?" he said. "You buy Coke and Pepsi for different reasons, but theyre essentially the same stuff. Theres a branded certified version that well stand behind, for enterprise, mission-critical applications."

Suns value proposition for Java, then, is that it will keep the Java standard from "forking"—breaking off into multiple, incompatible code bases, as Loiciano says Linux has. "The same [open source] foundation does not turn into compatibility," he said, pointing to incompatibilities between different distributions of Linux.

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