Open-source advocate: Release Java code

A day after Sun chief Scott McNealy says "open source is our friend," a prominent advocate of the collaborative programming philosophy calls on the company to open Java code.

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Stephen Shankland
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A day after Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy said open-source software is his company's friend, a prominent advocate of the collaborative programming philosophy has called upon the server maker to open the code of Java.

Eric S. Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative, said in an open letter Thursday that Sun needs to choose between controlling Java and seeing it spread as widely as possible.

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"Sun's insistence on continuing tight control of the Java code has damaged Sun's long-term interests by throttling acceptance of the language in the open-source community, ceding the field (and probably the future) to scripting-language competitors like Python and Perl," Raymond said in the letter.

"The choice is between control and ubiquity, and despite your claim that 'open source is our friend,' Sun appears to be choosing control," he said. "Sun's terms are so restrictive that Linux distributions cannot even include Java binaries for use as a browser plugin, let alone as a stand-alone development tool."

Raymond's remarks were in response to a Wednesday speech in which McNealy said, "The open-source model is our friend." The CEO argued that Sun is better able than competitors to withstand the advent of open-source software, which can be obtained at no cost.

Sun responded to Raymond that it has struck the right balance between releasing control of Java and running the risk that a company such as Microsoft could undermine the software. Java lets the same program run on many different types of computers, undermining the significance of a particular operating system such as Windows. Sun and Microsoft have fought years of legal wars about Microsoft's treatment of Java.

"There is a trade-off between protecting Java from misuse and allowing as many people as possible to contribute," Russ Castronovo, a Sun spokesman, said Friday. The Java Community Process, a formal structure by which companies such as Motorola and IBM have a major say in the future of Java, "works very well," he said.

Java is indeed a very different creature from open-source software, said Shawn Willett of Current Analysis. "At its heart, Java is something that you're going to pay for," and its development is dominated by companies with a financial interest in its success.

But while Sun might do well to listen to complaints from open-source programmers about Java's licensing terms, the company probably doesn't need to worry about one of Raymond's predictions, Willett said. "I don't think Python is going to take over Java. Java is the language to learn. There's an infrastructure set up where people get trained in Java. People do, because they know they'll get jobs that will pay them well."

Sun has been adjusting Java to open-source groups. For example, in 2003, it hammered out a truce, under which open-source Java group JBoss would get access to Sun's Java compatibility test software.

Raymond is the author of an influential essay on open-source programming, titled "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," and more recently of a document disputing the SCO Group's claims that Linux infringes on Unix intellectual property.

Raymond praised Sun for releasing specifications for the Network File System software for sharing files over a network and for opening the source code of the OpenOffice.org competitor to Microsoft's Office suite. However, he said, Sun's technologically superior NeWS graphical interface for Unix lost out to the X Window System, because the latter was open-source software.

"If Sun were prepared to go all the way with open source, it could seize back its position of industry leadership (and) do even better than IBM has from a full-fledged alliance with the open-source community," Raymond said.