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Necessity or nosebleed: Why open source Java?

Developers and analysts speak out on whether Java should be turned over to the open source community.

The debate surrounding the release of Java to open source is not a new one, but vague arguments from those in favor have left some scratching their heads over why it's being considered.

Java is the property of Sun Microsystems Inc., and with Sun struggling with its server business, some see its tight grip on Java as staunch defense of a viable business entity. Sun, meanwhile, is fighting off the advances of IBM and open source advocates by clinging to the notion it wants to keep Java implementations compatible. Sun has said it does not want the programming language to fork in different directions the way Unix did in the 1990s and the way some open source projects have today.

Caught in the middle are Java developers who recognize the politics behind the scenes and are satisfied with open source add-ons for Java like the J2EE-certified JBoss application server and products coming out of the Apache Software Foundation's Jakarta Project, which maintains open source projects written in Java.

"I've been working with Java for many years and haven't noticed any problems with the current model. The core SDK [software development kit] does a lot of what I want, and I download open-source libraries for anything else I need," said Matt Forth, a developer with Dimension Data, an Australian service provider. "What are the concrete benefits of open-sourcing Java? This all looks like politics to me, motivated as usual by the almighty dollar rather than by any benefits to techies or businesses, and will most probably make a mess of things as a result of yet more committees and political plays rather than offering benefits."

So the big question: If developers say they get enough in the development kit, and there are plenty of open source add-ons, is open source Java necessary?

Is IBM genuine in its Java interests?

David M. Smith, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., said it makes sense for Java to become part of the open source community. Smith said a two-tiered framework already exists for developers in enterprise Java and Microsoft's .NET platform, and that independent software vendors (ISVs) developing applications are interested in refining the number of frameworks they write to. Releasing Java to the open source community would continue to build upon the belief that "fewer is better," he said.

"[There would be] a combination of Java and open source on one side and .NET on other, so that ISVs and developers can deploy on either side and know it will run anywhere," Smith said.

This debate picked up real steam in February when Rod Smith, IBM vice president of emerging technologies, and Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative, penned letters to Sun urging it to release the Java source code to open source.

Gartner's David Smith said he doubts IBM has been completely genuine in its efforts to help Sun. Smith said IBM doesn't like Sun controlling the framework, the same way IBM didn't like Microsoft for taking over DOS many years ago. IBM has also been accused of wanting to sell its own Java distribution once the source code is open sourced.

"IBM would rather see an open source environment that is not in Sun's hands, but the issues here are larger than one company -- even as large as IBM," Smith said.

IBM's Rod Smith, meanwhile, suggested that IBM would think about developing specific parts of Java as open source. The Java 2 Standard Edition (J2SE) and Technology Compatibility Kit (TCK) were mentioned as components that IBM would consider if open source Java became a reality.

Compatibility concerns overblown?

Additionally, Gartner's Smith said Sun's reluctance because of claims and concerns over compatibility may be overblown.

During last month's JavaOne conference in San Francisco, reported that some panelists who were in favor of open source Java said non-compatible versions are part of the open source process and, when accurately marked, would not contribute to any problems.

With the future still uncertain, Sun is still very reluctant to open itself up to Microsoft by going open source with Java. David Smith said that ultimately it may be the market that drives the decision-making process.

"What will make open source and Java alternatives all the more viable is that ultimately it will drive costs down for companies," David Smith said.


The recent JavaOne conference was center stage in the open source Java debate

Bookmark this article on how Web services could benefit from open source Java

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