Sun Openly Ambivalent

The company needs to develop a focused open-source plan.

Sun is of many minds when it comes to open source. I recently spent an afternoon at Suns Software Summit, in Menlo Park, Calif., getting a detailed rundown on the companys software road map. The presentations and product demonstrations were, for the most part, very interesting, but what most fascinated me was the way that Suns complicated relationship with free software played itself out during the event.

For example, when someone asked about Suns stance on open-sourcing Java—a move recently recommended by IBM—Vice President of Developer Tools and Java Software Rich Green said Sun would "love to" open-source Java, provided that issues surrounding compatibility assurance could be ironed out.

But then Sun Executive Vice President of Software John Loiacano added, somewhat facetiously, that IBM shouldnt talk about Sun open-sourcing Java until Big Blue had freed WebSphere and DB2.

The responses of Green and Loiacano—so different in content and tone—point to the ambivalence within Sun toward open source.

/zimages/4/28571.gifRich Green has resigned from Sun. Get the full story here.

As newly appointed Sun President and COO Jonathan Schwartz pointed out at the summit, only UC Berkeley has contributed more code to open source than Sun.

Even so, Sun doesnt appear to have gotten religion about free software anywhere near as intensely as Novell has. Where Novell has begun to nudge NetWare slowly out of the picture in favor of Linux, Sun is leading with its proprietary Solaris operating system as strongly as ever.

However, while the core of what Sun offers isnt licensed as free software, the company has come to depend deeply on open-source projects, and these beneficial entanglements will keep Sun moving toward greater openness.

Take, for example, two of the most interesting demos I saw at the summit: Project Looking Glass and Java Desktop Systems APOC (A Point of Control).

Project Looking Glass is a 3-D user interface framework that runs on top of a standard Linux distribution and works with regular X applications. Looking Glass represents an opportunity for the Linux and Unix desktop to jump beyond whats now possible on Windows or Macintosh. However, if Looking Glass is to get past the eye-candy phase, the project will have to be expanded into or integrated with a complete desktop interface.

Right now, Suns default interface for Solaris and for Linux is GNOME, a free-software project. Looking Glass will never be part of GNOME unless Sun chooses to release the framework under an open-source license. Of course, Sun could develop its own desktop interface project, but that would require a huge development effort and be disruptive to current JDS customers.

Whats more, a move away from GNOME would throw a wrench into Suns plans for APOC, the desktop management system for Suns JDS. APOC is the biggest new feature of the JDS version set to ship this month, and one that will easily double the value of JDS by providing administrators with fine-grained control over their JDS desktops in a way that surpasses anything Ive yet seen available for Linux.

APOC depends on GConf, the system settings daemon thats built into GNOME and that will enable administrators to configure remotely the settings of nearly every current and future GNOME application.

There are forces within Sun that want Looking Glass to be open-sourced, and there are forces within Sun that want it to remain proprietary. But unless Sun opts to release Looking Glass as free software, it will have to shelve the project completely. This is no doubt a big reason why Looking Glass inventor Hideya Kawahara expressed such enthusiasm for releasing Looking Glass as open source while speaking with me at the summit.

Sun is slated to release an SDK for Looking Glass in a few months, but if Sun is serious about the project, it will have to address the projects licensing issues as soon as possible—starting with the fact that Looking Glass is written in Java, a platform thats not free and, as a result, cannot form the basis of a foundational open-source project.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be contacted at