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.
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.
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.”
Sun’s Open-Source Outreach Met with Mixed Emotions
Boston-based Aberdeen Group Analyst Stacey Quandt told eWEEK she thinks Sun is heading in the right direction.
“Suns Distro License for Java is a significant step in fostering greater collaboration between the Java community and the GNU/Linux community,” Quandt said.
“More importantly, the ability for community-developed and supported versions of Linux to support Suns Java SE 5.0 JDK and JRE will increase the number of Java applications supported and developed on Linux.
“This opens Sun’s door to new customers who will appreciate the opportunity to decrease costs and increase the choice of Linux distribution providers.
“As a result, we will see a new swatch of community-supported Java applications on Java. At the same time, the license protects against fragmentation of the Java standard. … Yes, of course Sun could have created this level of openness between Java and GNU/Linux, but it is not too little, and it is not too late,” Quandt said.
Principal Analyst Dave Rosenberg of the Open Source Development Lab in Beaverton, Ore., told eWEEK, “I applaud Sun’s philosophy to open-source all of its software, but the community is asking for Java. Until Sun open-sources Java, their open-source credibility flag will still fly at half-mast.”
Rosenberg said he is pleased that Sun is making it easier for Linux distributions to include the newly opened Java components, but he doesn’t think it will be viewed as a panacea — merely a stopgap measure.
“I would also argue that Sun had to do this or risk total irrelevance in respect to Linux,” he said.
“Historically, Sun has done well at building community, but this continuous cycle of open-sourcing software that people aren’t begging for feels more like desperation than it does strategic or beneficial to the community.
“While it’s great to have the code for people to use, these projects/community efforts are only partially relevant,” Rosenberg added.
Stephen O’Grady, an open-source IT analyst with Red Monk, in Denver, told eWEEK that he believes Sun is continuing down the path toward all of its software being open source — but that this effort still hasn’t convinced some people.
“One of the common complaints about Java from a Linux distribution perspective is that the licensing was such that it was one of the few pieces of software that could not be included in package repositories,” O’Grady said.
O’Grady also mentioned that unlike PHP, Ruby or Mono, Java could not be downloaded and installed seamlessly, and that the user had to visit Sun’s Web site, click through a EULA, and then download the package and place it in a specific location.
“Some will definitely contend that anything short of open-sourcing Java is too little, but, frankly, the DLJ move will address at least one of the major concerns with respect to open-sourcing Java.”
Longtime open-source advocate Bruce Perens of Berkeley, Calif., a former consultant to Hewlett-Packard and other companies, cast a suspicious eye on the moves.
“This strategy is intended to take some of the wind out of the sails of Free Java efforts like GNU Classpath, the four or five open-source Java VMs, and GCJ, the GNU Java compiler,” Perens told eWEEK.
“Sun intends to provide a good-enough JDK in the hopes that developers will put less effort into its fully open-source competition. But I think the developers will easily see through this. They’ll continue their efforts.”
A big part of IBMs and HPs strategies has been to use open source to devalue Sun’s ecosystem, Perens said, adding that Sun’s forte has always been systems programming, and that now there is a very dedicated open-source developer community intent on making systems programming a commodity.
“This means that Sun must always be ambivalent regarding open source,” said Perens.
“Thus, we see Sun making contributions to open source followed by some event in which Jonathan Schwartz bad-mouths open source and blows Suns credibility with the developer community, or something like Sun’s patent contract with Microsoft in which they essentially promise not to defend independent OpenOffice developers if Microsoft sues them.
Perens noted that the open-source developer community has never been sure that they can trust Sun.
“Given the bind Sun is in, I’m sure we [still] can’t trust them,” he said.