Java inches closer to open source

Sun plans to open up more Java software, but will stop short of sharing the programming language itself.

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
6 min read
Sun Microsystems is moving more of its software into the open-source realm. But the company will stop short of handing over the keys to Java itself--at least for now.

The company released the source code of more of its applications built on Java, including its portal and integration software, on Tuesday at its annual JavaOne conference in San Francisco. And as previously reported, it discussed the Java Distribution License (click here for PDF), which makes it easier to bundle the desktop Java Runtime Environment with Linux.

However, the event didn't see developers get their hands on the source code for the actual Java programming language--something that open-source advocates have urged Sun to hand over for years.

However, open-sourcing components of the Java language remains a possibility, said Rich Green, the executive vice president of software at Sun, who rejoined the company earlier this month.

"It's still on the table. We continue to analyze the situation in the marketplace," Green said. "There is comment, and there is value. We want to make sure we are doing the right things for the right people."

The planned JavaOne announcements--the release of more application code and the introduction of a license to better accommodate Linux--are meant to accelerate Sun's transition to an open-source business model.

The company's embrace of open source, and its efforts to warm up to other development languages, also reflect a shift in the center of gravity of the Java software development industry.

Vendor-driven standards bodies used to largely dictate the direction of Java. Now, open-source development projects and scripting languages have become fertile sources of innovation.

Still, Sun's open-source moves are unlikely to satisfy people who have called for the full-scale release of the Java language.

"(Open-sourcing Java) would be the only thing coming out of Sun that would be newsworthy," said Richard Monson-Haefel, an analyst at the Burton Group.

Sun has resisted such a move to prevent incompatibilities and fend off a loss of control over the Java brand. It has, however, altered its software licenses and processes to make it easier for licensees to view Java source code.

Monson-Haefel said Sun's decision to gradually open source its Java-based server software, as opposed to the language itself, is unlikely to have a significant impact on the marketplace overall. That's because it lags behind other Java middleware vendors--IBM, BEA Systems, Oracle and JBoss--in usage and market share, according to analyst research.

"If you're not making a splash as a commercial vendor, it's pretty sure you won't make a splash as open-source contributors," Monson-Haefel said.

Pushing the open-source envelope
The release of code for Sun's Java applications, a step toward open-sourcing its entire software product line, is part of the company's effort to increase revenue from its software business. Its strategy is to make money from providing support for freely available open-source products and to forge stronger relations with developers, who influence corporate purchasing decisions.

Earlier this year, Sun launched OpenSolaris, an open-source project for its Solaris operating system. In addition, it made a shift in its Java applications, scrapping an upfront license fee in favor of subscription-based pricing, common in open-source business models.

On Tuesday, Sun is expected to release a Java application server based on the Java Enterprise Edition 5 standard, a new version of the Java software that is designed to simplify the process of building server Java programs.

Other products Sun is expected to open source include: Sun Java System Portal Server 7; an integration server based on the Business Process Execution Language (BPEL) specification; the Java Studio Enterprise tool; messaging-queuing software; and Web services Interoperability Technology, which is software for sharing data between Java and Microsoft .Net applications.

Green said that he will continue to pursue Sun's open-source software strategy and even pick up the pace.

"I'm planning on pushing the envelope much harder, in terms of technology and community development investments Sun makes," he said.

To be sure, Sun is not the only company adjusting to open source: Giving away products away for free to developers has become commonplace. And the growing maturity of open-source software, such as Red Hat's JBoss and MySQL's database products, has driven down prices, analysts said.

Green said that the results of Sun's approach are promising. For example, Sun's Solaris operating system has been "rejuvenated" since Sun began an open-source project around it, whereas before it had been written off as a casualty of competition from Linux, Green said.

The number of subscribers to Sun's Java server suite, called Java Enterprise System, has risen every quarter over the past two years and topped one million subscribers earlier this year.

Still, Green acknowledged that it isn't always easy to see how those initiatives will drive revenue at the company.

"I know for many in the industry, the business model that enables Sun to generate revenue the context of this new software ecosystem is complex. You have to squint at it sideways to understand it," Green said. "On the other hand, companies with far fewer resources in terms of support and maintenance have figured out how to monetize this new software ecosystem."

Jonathan Schwartz, who replaced Scott McNealy as Sun CEO last month, has been a driving force behind the company's software moves. Schwartz is scheduled to speak at JavaOne on Tuesday.

Meeting grassroots efforts halfway
Even as Sun tries open source to better capitalize on its invention, the company--and other Java software providers--are facing a growing list of alternatives to Java, particularly for writing Web applications.

Java is widely used for industrial-strength corporate applications, but simpler, faster scripting languages are gaining interest among developers.

Sun's approach is to make scripting, or "dynamic," languages work well with Java. On Thursday, it said it will offer support to the jMaki project, which aims to create tools for writing AJAX-style Web applications with existing Java front-end development tools.

Still, the company continues to have a Java-centric view of the world, said Steve Mills, head of IBM's software group, which derives billions of dollars in revenue from its Java-based software.

Mills said a lot of "the action in software development" is focused on scripting and scripting "frameworks," such as Ruby on Rails, which make developers more productive. Many customers would rather use scripting tools to create a Web front-end for existing server Java programs, he said.

"There's always still work to do back in the engine room--it's not like everyone lost interest in Java and practical ways to extend it," Mills said. "But it's not the answer to every problem, and frankly this is where we've had debates with Sun. Let's not try to make Java what it's not."

All Java tools and middleware vendors face development software juggernaut Microsoft, which has a long track record of making harder programming tasks easier.

"Java has been less embraced?(in) a large swath of commercial applications in ERP (enterprise resource planning) and supply chain and such--apps that involve serious transactions and a real need to scale. Many of those apps, and the ISVs (independent software vendors) and developers that create them, are going to .Net and Microsoft," said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst at Illuminata.

The improvements in the Java Platform Enterprise Edition 5 standard, which was recently finalized, are specifically aimed at developer productivity, particularly for server-side Java applications. But many of the most popular productivity tools for developers spring from open-source groups, rather than the vendor-led Java Community Process standards body.

"What's happening is that the entire industry is having a backlash against complexity," said Burton Group's Monson-Haefel. "So JavaOne is not about the standards coming out of Java Community Process--it's about the open-source community and the de facto standards."

Joe Keller, vice president of marketing for service-oriented architecture and integration platforms at Sun, said that the Java Community Process is now able to capture many of the enhancements that spring from grassroots open-source efforts and standardize them.

"There are innovations happening in the community and the standard-setting process. It continues to happen over and over--it's a natural process of evolution," he said.