But the company is still holding its technology cards close to its chest. It has no immediate plans to relinquish control of source code or the valuable Java trademark to an outside standards body, as Sun executives made clear today in a call with reporters.
Sun's JavaSoft division announced today that it has applied to submit Java to an international standards organization. Sun expects to eventually transfer specifications for Java--including the language itself, class libraries, APIs, and the Java Virtual Machine--to a joint technical committee of the International Standards Organization (ISO) and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).
However, Sun will retain control of the code and trademark for all Java technologies. That means that another company could recreate Java based on the standard specification, but they would not be allowed to call it Java. Sun will still work with other companies such as Novell and Netscape Communications to develop new APIs for the technology.
"We're not giving the [Java] brand over to [ISO/IEC]," said Jim Mitchell, a vice president at JavaSoft. "That continues to be our property."
Still, giving the Java specification, if not the technology itself, to a standards group could help bolster Java in several ways. An officially approved specification could help spread use of the technology beyond American software companies, particularly among governments and businesses overseas that are strict about using only standardized, stable programming languages.
"In terms of what this means to people who are depending on Java for livelihood, this should let them sleep better at night that they can see pieces [of Java] that are stable, that they can count on," Mitchell added.
The move could also help defuse criticism from Microsoft that Java is a proprietary Sun technology, as well as win Sun points for being a standards-conscious company. An official standard might also make it easier for Sun to fend off extensions to Java, such as the bridges Microsoft has constructed between Java and ActiveX
"Going forward, this gives JavaSoft a pretty good stick for beating back Microsoft for trying to freelance around the Java standard," said Stan Dolberg, an analyst with Forrester Research.
The joint committee of ISO and IEC is expected to make its decision about Java in July. If it is accepted, Sun will likely begin handing Java to the group in pieces, transferring first the more mature parts of the technology, including the Java language itself and its class file formats.
Today, Microsoft endorsed the idea of giving Java to a standards body but questioned why Sun isn't providing a reference implementation of Java for other companies to follow.
"It's a great idea, but we need to see what they're doing," said Charles Fitzgerald, a program manager at Microsoft.
Sun's application was sent to the joint committee of ISO/IEC on March 14. It has previously held meetings with ISO to discuss how it might make Java an official standard, but last week's application to ISO/IEC is its most tangible effort yet to make good on its intentions.
The groups have been involved in the standardization of languages in the past such as C.