To those long-suffering open-source developers who have been waiting for years to venture unencumbered into Java code and tweak it to their hearts content, Sun Microsystems has three things to say: G, P and L.
Sun on Nov. 13 released at www.sun.com/java all versions of Java-Standard, Enterprise and Micro Edition-under GNU GPL (General Public License) Version 2.0. Sun will maintain its commercial license and its CDDL (Common Development and Distribution License) in a multiple-license menu for certain customers that have already built systems based on previous contracts.
“This undoubtedly is the largest single open-source contribution in the history of IT,” Rich Green, executive vice president of software for Sun, said in an interview. “It’s the mental final step for Sun and Java.”
Devs wanted it open-sourced for a long time
For many of the 11 years the Java programming language has been in production use, software developers have been griping privately and publicly that the Santa Clara, Calif., company should release it to the open-source community. Java would be more valuable and allow for more innovation if it was freed from corporate ownership and allowed to thrive in the open market, they say.
Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz promised May 16 at the company’s JavaOne Conference that this would be done as soon as possible.
“It’s a real tribute to our software, business and legal, marketing, and NetBeans teams that they were able to pull this thing off in just six months,” Green said.
The transition was tedious and legalistic, said Sun General Counsel Mike Dillon. “Java Standard Edition contains about 6 million lines of code,” Dillon said. “Our legal team [of 190 lawyers] had to go over it, line by line, and look for all copyright marks and third-party involvements. Where Sun didn’t have the correct licenses, we had to contact the owners, one by one, and determine the rights.” In some cases, Sun had to settle with copyright owners.
Why Sun settled on the GPL
Dillon said the company considered some of the 200-plus open-source licenses but settled on the GPL because “it has the largest development community at this time driving innovation, and that is what Sun is striving for.”
Green said Sun expects a new community called “Open JDK” to develop around Java SE. The mobile and embedded version, Java ME, already has a community, as does the Java Enterprise Edition open-source project GlassFish, which began in 2005 and has already created an open-source application server. Green said he does not anticipate any friction between the JCP (Java Community Process), which currently governs Java development and has strong ties to Sun itself, and the open-source community.
“JCP concerns itself mainly with whats inside Java,” Green said. “The open-source community will mainly be building on top of Java the applications they need to build. All development will follow a natural order, we believe.”
The ubiquitous nature of the JVM (Java virtual machine) and often–tangled proprietary development ties to the parent company had been the key factors holding up the transition. Sun had responded by releasing bits and pieces of its prize IP to the community during the last few months.
Early reaction to the move: Positive
Early reaction from analysts, developers and Sun commercial customers has been positive. The main redemption for the commercial licensing, which often runs into seven figures, is indemnification, Green said.
“Plus the full support of the branded products by the company. Open-source software does not provide for protection from litigation; thats the nature of open source,” he said.
James Gosling, on medical leave from his research position at Sun and generally considered the “father” of Java, has long supported keeping Java on a leash. But Gosling said in a blog recently that he was “really happy were finally getting it done. The only thing I’m unhappy about is how many complexities there are to take care of.”
Green, who returned to Sun in May after two years at virtualization provider Cassatt, said that one of the main reasons he came back to the company was the opportunity to help bring Java to the open-source community. Prior to his time at Cassatt, Green had worked for Sun for 14 years.
Little change for the customer community
Stephen O’Grady, an analyst with RedMonk, in Denver, said he wasn’t surprised that Sun was finally opening up Java. Choosing the GPL made sense, given its popularity in a number of open-source communities.
“It will definitely help within the development community,” O’Grady said. “From an enterprise customer perspective, [there is] probably very little [change]. There are some businesses that have run into bugs with Java that an open-source version could address, but, overall, enterprises aren’t likely to be terribly excited by the news.”
“This is a great move for the Internet ecosystem, adding open-source Java to the mix,” said Mark Shuttleworth, founder of the Ubuntu Linux distribution, which is based in Douglas on the United Kingdom’s Isle of Man. “Not having open Java is why the community had to devise things like Ruby on Rails and PHP. Now the restrictions are gone, and a lot more experimentation can begin.”
Matt Jacobsen, a Java developer with New Atlanta Communications, in Atlanta, said he didn’t see Sun suddenly being considered the world’s foremost open-source software company because of the move.
There was pressure on Sun to do it
“I’m sure they’ll spin it that way, but I certainly won’t see it as that,” Jacobsen said. “This seems more like a reaction to years of pressure for this at a time when Sun has little else going for them. I do think the choice of GPL is probably a smart move on their part, now that Java has permeated as much as it has.”
Larry Rosen, a Stanford University Law School lecturer and former chief counsel for the Open Source Initiative, said that “Sun is to be congratulated, and they are doing a good deed. They are indeed an open-source company, but not the only one. Maybe instead they can be called a model to be emulated.”
The move is important because it makes Java “available for incorporation into other GPL-licensed software,” said Rosen in Ukiah, Calif. “Because the GPL covers so much software, thats a huge plus. But it won’t help organizations like [the Apache Software Foundation], whose use of Java will still be difficult because the GPL is incompatible with the Apache license. That license compatibility problem remains to be solved another day, perhaps with a new version of the GPL.”
Sun’s move, while positive, will not erase all those years of constricted licensing that drove away developers, said RedMonk’s O’Grady. “But it will undoubtedly be a relief for Sun to not have to answer questions on open-sourcing Java any longer,” he said.
Open-source history at Sun
Sun’s release of Java under the GNU GPL is the latest move by the company to give its technology to the open-source community. Other technologies open-sourced by Sun include:
- 2004: Looking Glass, a user interface technology
- 2006: UltraSPARC T1 multicore Niagara processor