Is Java cooling off?

Sun tries to quell dissension among Java backers while fending off Microsoft.

When Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy took the stage at the fifth JavaOne conference in 2000, he could barely contain himself as he described Java's runaway success.

The Sun creation was attracting millions of programmers eager to use Java to build everything from smart-phone software to high-volume Web sites. "Stewardship of Java is such a profitable business, I feel like a start-up," McNealy gushed.

When another JavaOne conference begins on Monday, McNealy might not be so giddy.

News.context

What's new:
Some say interest in Java is sinking as Sun's fortunes falter--and that making it open source could turn it around.

Bottom line:
Sun is starting to suggest that there may be open source in Java's future, but not in the short run. Still, the issue will be a hot topic at JavaOne this week.

More stories on Java

Java, a cross-platform programming language, remains a vital technology to legions of corporate customers and software companies, but the unity of the Java industry itself is being strained, according to industry observers. The past year has seen more explicit conflict among Java vendors, instead of the cohesive front needed to compete effectively against Microsoft. Also, open source and the rise of Web services have drawn developer attention away from Java.

And Sun's declining revenue and shifting product strategies are a distraction to the industry at large, which has looked to the company as the Java standard bearer.

For Sun, which is trying to revitalize its own Java business, the shifting ground in the software landscape could mean that the Java creator may ultimately have less sway in the direction of the industry.

"Sun is actually losing control of the Java franchise," said Anne Thomas Manes, an analyst at the Burton Group and former Sun executive. "If Sun were smart, they'd see the writing on the wall--that they can't maintain exclusive control of Java and that open source is taking over."

At the JavaOne conference, Sun will forge ahead with its plans to regain lost ground in the Java software market. Sun will be releasing Java Studio Creator, a $99 Java tool meant to steal away developers from Microsoft's easy-to-use products. The company is also introducing a bundle that includes a two-processor Opteron-based Sun server running the Solaris operating system and the Java development tools, for a three-year $1,499 annual subscription.

Sun contends that the Java industry remains vibrant, and that the company regularly evaluates its relationship with the Java community.

The open-source runaround
One of the most pressing questions facing the Java industry is whether Sun will release Java to the open-source community, potentially ceding some control over Java's evolution. One of the most high-profile events planned for this week is a to debate the open-source question. IBM and other Java proponents say an open-source version of Java will increase the software's popularity.


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Although Sun President Jonathan Schwartz has indicated that Sun is reluctant to make Java open-source software for fear of dividing the industry, the company's new head of software said Sun continues to actively work toward it.

"We are moving in that direction, but we have not decided how, when, or if," said John Loiacono, Sun's executive vice president of software. "No matter what we do on the licensing model, compatibility will be key criteria we will have to address. That's what the community is asking for."

"We are moving (toward open-sourcing Java), but we have not decided how, when, or if."
--John Loiacono,
Sun's executive vice president
of software

The question of making Java open source, which has been most loudly endorsed by IBM, is the most prominent example of how differing interests of the Java community are increasingly bubbling to the surface. Over the past year, other major industry initiatives have been launched outside of the Java Community Process (JCP), the Sun-controlled forum for adding new features to Java software.

Last November, the leading Java server software vendors, IBM and BEA Systems, chose to bypass the JCP to bring new back-end Java features to market. BEA submitted software, including XMLBeans and its Beehive component development model, to open-source foundations because they said that development process is quicker and more flexible than the JCP.

Eclipse, an open-source foundation founded by IBM, has seen a huge increase in popularity among tools companies and Java programmers. Sun declined an invitation to join Eclipse and instead decided to redouble efforts in its own open-source development tools project, NetBeans.

Meanwhile, a group called the Java Tools Community, which includes Sun, Oracle, BEA, SAP and others, was formed to advocate for more work on tooling within the Java Community Process. IBM declined its invitation to join.

Advantage, Microsoft
These disjointed efforts around the advancement of Java underscore how Java vendors are increasingly choosing to go their own way without Sun's direct involvement, said Bill Whyman, an analyst at the Precursor Group. The Java standardization process is democratic, but the lack of a cohesive approach to Java development benefits Microsoft, which is beefing up its .Net line of software to take on the back-end computing jobs dominated by Java.

An open question is how a high-profile technology agreement with Microsoft, announced earlier this year, will affect Java.

"The Java community is being pushed and pulled in many different directions, and that competitive dynamic is undercutting their ability to provide a common front to Microsoft," Whyman said.

The battle between Java-based software companies and Microsoft is far from over. Studies indicate that developers are split between Microsoft's .Net tools and Java-based products for building applications that conform to Web services, a set of protocols that have gained wide industry backing. Java companies are making steady headway in making Java easier to program with better tools and changes to "runtime" software underlying Java applications and tools.

Java has been installed in millions of handheld devices, such as mobile phones, which is a market Microsoft has yet to fully crack.

Sun plays an influential role in the Java industry because it controls the core Java specifications used by other vendors. And Sun provides testing kits to ensure that Java's compatibility so that applications can run on products from different providers.

But in the area of commercial software, Sun finds itself in the role of also-ran, despite having founded the Java industry. In the multibillion-dollar Java server software market, for example, Sun has a single-digit share behind leaders IBM, BEA and Oracle, according to research.

Central to Sun's strategy to gain market share are its new Java Studio Creator tool and a cut-rate, per-user licensing plan for its suite of Java server and desktop products. Sun has signed on some customers to its revamped Java software line, but the full impact of the new

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