Sun's Open-Source Outreach Met with Mixed Emotions

As Sun wades deeper into open-source waters, reaction from the analyst and open-source communities is diverse and divided.

Sun Microsystems has been a prime supporter of open source in the enterprise in its own way for years, mainly through the OpenOffice, NetBeans and OpenSolaris communities.

Yet due to restrictive and often-tangled licensing practices involving Java, Jini networking and other home-grown technologies, the company has never fully earned the respect-or trust-of the open-source community.

The Santa Clara, Calif., company is now firmly dedicated to improving that relationship -- and not only in the software department.

While resisting increasing pressure to open up the Java programming language itself, Sun nonetheless is wading deeper into the open-source pool than it ever has before.

At its annual JavaOne conference, being hosted in San Francisco the week of May 15, the company will announce a series of strategic moves involving more user-friendly licensing, the creation of new open-source communities and a new batch of software to be released into the open-source cosmos.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about the chances of Sun open-sourcing Java.

Reaction to Sun's moves has been as diverse as the software development and analyst community itself.

"First off, its important to note that Sun has been a huge, net producer of open-source software," Matt Asay, business development vice president at Alfresco Software, in Palo Alto, Calif., told eWEEK.

Asay, co-founder of Open Source Business Conference and former open-source director at Novell, has worked with the open-source community since 1998.

"The company has been generous and generally quite smart in its open-source strategy. Under Jonathan's [Schwartz] leadership, I'm confident this will accelerate. Its moves this week are on the light side, but represent further steps in the right direction for Sun," Asay wrote.

"Java, however, is an inexplicable blight on Sun's otherwise enviable open-source record. It is unfathomable to me how such a basic building block of technology -- Java -- can remain closed source.

"Especially when to do so yields net positives for Sun. I can't think of a single, credible negative side effect for Sun [if it were] to open-source Java.

Sun's reasons for continued closure can't be competitive or capitalist in nature, Asay said.

"Java generates very little revenue for Sun. It gives Sun no competitive advantage. In short, Sun has no good capitalist reason for keeping Java closed, and every capitalist incentive to open it up.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read what Schwartz had to say about open-source Java.

Asay noted that Alfresco has customers, primarily in the government vertical, who cannot use Alfresco because Java remains a closed-source product.

"Every other piece of Alfresco is 100 percent open source, but not the JVM [Java virtual machine]," he said. "If we were alone in this, that would be our problem. But there's a huge population of great Java software that will be locked out of a rising population of government and other users because of Javas licensing. It's time to open it up."

Analyst Michael Gartenberg of Jupitermedia, in Darien, Conn., told eWEEK that this isn't overly shocking news, given the company's slow-but-sure move toward open source in the past.

"The real question is: Where is this going to take it, and how will they be able to generate revenue from it? If Sun had adopted this model many years back, would the world be in a different place? Possibly.

"Sun has always had a tenuous relationship with the open-source community -- and the community is very diverse.

"Some people will see these moves as too little, too late; others will embrace them. Most people are going to wonder: What does Sun hope to gain from all of this? That's the key question to ask."

Java developer Matt Jacobsen, who works for New Atlanta Communications, based in Atlanta, said he thought Sun has seen the success IBM has had with its own open-source projects and is now "getting on the bandwagon."

"It's no secret that Sun needs to do something to revive its business," Jacobsen said.

"For me, I couldn't care less. I use their JVM for work projects that have no problems with the licensing agreement. I think there's a loud minority who care about an unrestrictive license ... open-sourcing it, however, would be a good thing. There are a number of poorly implemented parts to Sun's JVM. Letting other developers fix it could only help the industry."

Next Page: New opportunities for Sun.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...