Should Sun Free Java?

Yes, if it wants to boost Java's value and reach.

Sun has been dealing with calls to loosen its grip on Java for years. During the last several weeks, these calls have intensified, with open-source advocate Eric Raymond and IBM Vice President of Emerging Technologies Rod Smith both challenging Sun to make its Java code available under an open-source license.

Should Sun set Java free? Lightening the license restrictions on Java might be in IBMs best interest, and it would certainly be a boon to the open-source community, but the key questions are whether and how an open-source Java would benefit Suns goals.

The way that Sun has begun to embrace Linux suggests that the company understands that its future is tied to free software. If Sun expects to participate in and exert its influence on open-source software development through Java, it will have to make some changes.

While Java source code is available for perusal and while the Java Community Process allows for community participation in the shaping of Java, ultimate control of Java rests completely in the hands of Sun—a fact thats hindered the use of Java in core open-source projects. This is why, despite its name, Suns Linux-based Java Desktop System contains no significant Java-based components.

Even where open-source software makes use of Java, such as in the Java-based Eclipse IDE or parts of, the fact that theres no up-to-date free JVM available means that most Linux distributions must ship without one.

As a result, the features that require Java are disabled in the version of that ships with Red Hats Fedora, and the version of Eclipse included with Red Hat Enterprise Linux is compiled into native machine code with the free-software project GCJ rather than run on a JVM. While GCJ produces a version of Eclipse that runs much faster than the standard JVM-based version, GCJ is a work in progress. For example, it isnt possible to debug an Eclipse plug-in with the GCJ version of Eclipse alone.