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Open source Java debate brews cold

Sun executives met open source Java advocates head on during a panel discussion at JavaOne

SAN FRANCISCO -- The expected confrontation Thursday between Sun and advocates for the release of Java to open source failed to produce the pre-Fourth of July fireworks some were hoping for.

Instead, both sides in the panel discussion at the JavaOne conference laid out their arguments in a debate sure to stir passion in the coming months.


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The major players were in attendance Thursday. In a February letter to Sun vice president Rob Gingell, Rod Smith, IBM's vice president of emerging technologies, suggested IBM help Sun create a program to develop Java under an open source model. Gingell sat on the panel yesterday as well.

Smith said yesterday Java needed to be open sourced to accelerate innovation.

"Parts of Java that we would think about open sourcing are J2SE [Java 2 Standard Edition] and the TCKs [Technology Compatibility Kit]. We'd like to see innovation outside the Java namespace," Smith said.

Sun has argued all along that it does not want to release the Java source code because it fears incompatibility. Gingell said Thursday that the ultimate goal of the Java Community Process (JCP) is to provide quality compatible code.

"Our fundamental promise is that Java programs will not be lied to by other programs pretending to be Java," Gingell said. "Every year there is more commitment to the promise of compatibility," he added. Gingell went as far as to ask what "open source" meant. "If open sourcing is the answer, please tell me what the problem is?" Gingell said.

Panelist Brian Behlendorf, founder and chief technology officer (CTO) of Brisbane, Calif.-based CollabNet Inc., argued in favor of open sourcing Java, drawing on his experiences with open sourcing Apache.

"Compatibility and open source are not separate sides of a dichotomy. Intermediate, non-compatible versions are part of the open source process. As long as they are marked as non-compatible, there shouldn't be a problem," Behlendorf said.

Open source advocate and Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig stressed he does not believe the debate to be an ideological one. Lessig said Sun's concerns about open sourcing should be assuaged by the licensing process.

"I believe in the law and the law has tools that can achieve the goal of compatibility without mucking up the license process," Lessig said.

Our fundamental promise is that Java programs will not be lied to by other programs pretending to be Java.
Rob Gingell
Vice presidentSun Microsystems Inc.

Lessig offered Linux as an example of open sourcing that has failed the task of compatibility. "All these distributions (of Linux) are just different enough to be a pain in the butt," said James Gosling, the "father of Java" and CTO of Sun's developer products group. Sun hopes to avoid this possibility by being the steward of Java.

At least one panel member agreed with Sun's position. Justin Shaffer, director of operations of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, called Sun "an able angel for Java." Shaffer pointed out the stability of the open sourcing process, and added that he is "not convinced that everything needs to be out there."

Java users attending the conference agreed with Shaffer's sentiments. "It is really a tough decision (to open source)," said Alex Roman, senior programmer at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. "In this day and age, everyone is in a hurry. If Sun open sources too abruptly, it could be devastating. They don't want to make an irrevocable mistake," Roman added.

An anonymous Sun employee wondered how the JCP was limiting innovation. "I don't really think Rod Smith supported that part of his argument," he said.

One Java programmer was wary of IBM's motives. "I think it is political. If IBM wants to do it (open source) faster, they can do it themselves," said Valeriu Bajenaru, treasury IT manager of Schlumberger in New York.

During the previous day's events, BEA Systems Inc., an IBM ally in the open source debate, called for the open source of J2SE. "It's a natural thing for the community to do. I'm watching the Microsoft community do a lot more with managed code inside systems' products. But in the open source community outside of Java software, most of Linux is done in C and C++. We could be doing more if the Java community were reaching out for them, if we were open source," said BEA Systems CTO Scott Dietzen.

Panel member James Governor, principal analyst and founder of Bath, Maine-based RedMonk, also brought up Microsoft, but he did so in support of the Java community. "When I saw the inroads made by Longhorn, I had some concern about the Java community, but as a community, Java is really stepping up."

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