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IBM urges Sun to make Java open source

Big Blue offers to work with Sun to help shepherd the programming language--Sun's most valuable software asset--through an open-source development model.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read
IBM has sent an open letter to Sun Microsystems, urging the company to make Java technology open source, CNET News.com learned late Wednesday.

In a letter sent by Rod Smith, IBM's vice president of emerging technology, IBM offered to work with Sun to create a project that would shepherd development of Java through an open-source development model. If implemented, portions of Sun's most valuable software asset--Java--would be freely available, and contributors ranging from volunteer programmers to large corporations would submit changes to the Java software.

"Sun's strong commitment to open-source Java would speed the development of a first-class and compatible open-source Java implementation to the benefit of our customers and our industry," Smith wrote to Rob Gingell, a Sun vice president. "We are firmly convinced the open-source community would rally around this effort."

Under the offer, IBM would provide technical resources and code for the open-source Java implementation, while Sun would provide documentation and tests around the Java specifications, which Sun controls. IBM is heavily invested in Java, and the company's Java-based products have significant market share.

Smith said that making Java open-source software would accelerate the adoption of Java software and "open a whole world of opportunity for new applications and growth of the Java community."

A Sun representative on Thursday said that the company has received the letter from IBM and that Gingell would discuss the matter with Smith, although no timeframe was specified.

Open-source advocate Eric Raymond earlier this month also sent Sun an open letter, telling the Java steward that the company had to choose between control and ubiquity of Java. By making Java open source, Sun would be inviting the participation of open-source developers and help fuel usage of Java, particularly in conjunction with other open-source software, he said.

Sun regularly considers whether and how it should make Java open source, Java inventor James Gosling said earlier this month in an interview with CNET News.com. But these internal discussions have never yielded a full embrace of open source, said Gosling, who called the matter "complicated."

IBM has been calling on Sun to make Java open source for years. But given the growing interest in open-source software and recent positive comments regarding open source from Sun, IBM thought the time was right to open up a dialogue, said Bob Sutor, director of WebSphere infrastructure at IBM.

"Our hope is that there will be some discussion out in the open so that it becomes a serious possibility," Sutor said Wednesday. He said IBM is open to a broad set of possibilities.

Open-source implementations of some Java products already exist and Sun has worked with the open-source Apache Foundation and JBoss, an open-source Java application server company.

IBM is proposing that Sun, IBM and others choose which portions of the Java technology--such as the Java Runtime environment, code libraries or even server software--should be submitted to open source. Optimally, an official open-source version of Java would emerge to replace a "hodgepodge" of open-source Java technologies and efforts, Sutor said.

Making the Java programming model open source would help drive its adoption and be beneficial to Java companies' ongoing battle against Microsoft, particularly when combined with Linux, he said.

"Sun holds the strings on this ultimately," Sutor said. "But in terms of what's good for the industry, this (open sourcing of Java) would be inevitable."

One analyst who saw the IBM letter applauded the general idea of making Java open source but criticized Big Blue for its very public method of communication.

"There are a lot of specifics lacking (in the IBM offer), like what portions would go to open source, what the licensing terms would be. All of those things are best worked out behind closed doors," said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk. "This automatically puts the heat on Sun."

O'Grady also noted that the Sun-led Java standardization process, called the Java Community Process, is a relatively effective--though slow--method for adding improvements to the software. Participation from the open-source developer community could accelerate advancements in Java, but that wouldn't necessarily happen, he said.

"It's not like Sun controls Java's destiny with an iron fist," O'Grady said. "(A change to open source) would basically mean the difference of development by committee versus development by community."

Rick Ross, a Java developer and founder of Javalobby, a promoter of the software, said that there are clear benefits to taking Java open source. For example, it would make Java easier to package with Linux distributions and would spur competition to make portions of the Java software run better. But Ross said that Sun needs to cede more control of Java's marketing to encourage other companies to promote it.

"The real problem is not that Java isn't open sourced, since the source is pretty readily available," Ross said. "The real problem is that Sun is perhaps only 5 percent of the Java industry--if that much--yet they have total control of the platform positioning and are doing an inadequate job of promoting it."