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Free Java knockoff steers clear of Sun

Cygnus Solutions is lending its weight to the effort to reproduce Java technologies without the involvement of Java creator Sun Microsystems.

Cygnus Solutions is lending its weight to the effort to reproduce Java technologies without the involvement of Java creator Sun Microsystems.

The privately held Sunnyvale, California, company yesterday announced the release of basic software tools called libraries that can be used instead of similar products from Sun. The technology is open source, meaning that anyone may download it for free, modify it, and use it for their own purposes, including selling products.

The libraries join Java compilers Cygnus released earlier this year, also as open source software. The compiler lets programmers convert software written in the Java programming language into "native" instructions a specific microprocessor can understand.

The move seems to present a new threat to Sun, which has been trying to keep control over Java, saying that its job is to make sure the technology isn't splintered by different companies backing different standards. But maintaining its regime has become ever more difficult as the technology proliferates into markets as divergent as cell phone Web browsers and database information processing software.

The software Cygnus released today is good for programs that have been precompiled for a specific chip--in other words, for applications that treat Java as just another programming language without taking advantage of its "write once, run anywhere" features.

In addition, the software doesn't cover some of the fancier Java technologies such as two-dimensional and three-dimensional graphics, audio, or video.

Still, it comes comes on the heels of software from Hewlett-Packard that addresses another component of Java's "write once, run anywhere" strategy. HP added its own technology to the Mauve project hosted by Cygnus to reproduce Java compatibility testing software that otherwise is available only from Sun.

And HP and Cygnus aren't the only companies to contribute to Mauve. Transvirtual, a Berkeley, California, company with a complete clone of the Java environment, also has helped that effort and has made its own open source Java libraries available.

Tim Wilkinson, Transvirtual's chief executive, said control and cost savings are the main reasons why someone would want to proceed with Java without Sun's blessing: "You're not bound by any of Sun's rules about what it should or shouldn't be, and it makes it easier to compete with Sun if you don't have to give Sun a kickback."

Transvirtual's customers are companies developing products such as Web phones, personal organizers, high-tech cash registers, or other single-purpose devices.

But Oddi Raju, chief executive of a Mountain View, California, Java start-up company called Orchidsoft, sees a role for continued Sun control of Java.

Cloned Java software could mean that "we'll end up having multiple versions of Java, just like the Unix flavors. It's very negative for the Java world," he said.

Orchidsoft's upcoming Java-based products, due by the end of the year, are aimed at large corporations using Sun's Enterprise Java Beans technology.

Meanwhile, in order to encourage Java developers to stay within Sun's camp, Sun has loosened its licensing rules. The newer model, called the Community Source License, lets anyone look at the Java source code and develop products with it, requiring royalty payments only when products start shipping.

The new licensing rules make room for Java "clones" such as Transvirtual's Kaffe or Tower Technology's TowerJ product, so long as those clones pass Sun's suite of compatibility tests.