Sun reverses plan for Java standard

Sun Microsystems abandons an effort to make Java an industry standard, flying in the face of IBM.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise Processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science. Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
4 min read
Sun Microsystems abandoned an effort to make Java an industry standard today, flying in the face of IBM, one of the biggest fans of the software.

Sun had hoped to turn Java over to a standards body called ECMA but announced today it's withdrawing from the effort.

"I weighed the options and I've made a decision. I've decided we will not submit Java to ECMA," said Pat Sueltz, head of Sun's software division, in a keynote address today at the Java Business Expo in New York.

Sun abandoned the ECMA process so the company can make sure all Java programs run on all Java environments, Sueltz said, implying that standardizing through ECMA could create a new version that worked differently from Sun's.

Making Java an industry standard instead of just a de facto standard from Sun would give other companies a much stronger position in defining Java and determining the future direction of the software. IBM and Sun are at loggerheads over this standardization process, and IBM endorsed a proposal to consider going ahead without Sun's help.

But Sun and others say trying to standardize Java without Sun's help would be a doomed effort.

"I think it's impractical, because Sun owns the technology and can change the technology and completely invalidate any independent effort that's been made," said John Rymer, an analyst at Upstream Consulting. "It may lead to some academically interesting effort, but I can't see why any customer would commit to it at all. It's far too risky."

There are legal roadblocks as well, said George Paolini, who's in charge of working with Sun's Java partners. Only about 20 to 30 percent of the Java specification is available without copyright restrictions, Paolini said.

The move is a reversal not only for Sun, which initiated the arrangement with ECMA earlier this year, but also for Sueltz, who led IBM's Java effort until she moved to Sun more than two months ago.

Sun initiated the standardization effort years ago, when Java was newer and Microsoft looked like the biggest foe. Things have changed dramatically since then with the rise of the Internet and the comfortable and profitable position Sun has earned selling servers that power it.

The standardization process was motivated by Sun's desire to "validate and protect" Java, to give the software the "imprimatur or cachet of having an international standards body validate it," said spokesman David Harrah.

But Rymer believes other motives were at work at Sun. "This has been public relations from day one. I've never believed they were going to do anything" with the standardization effort, he said.

"It never made any sense to me at all. I didn't see what leverage they would get turning over control," Rymer said.

Benefit or not, Sun has been a vocal advocate of the standardization effort for years.

Sun initially tried to standardize Java through a subgroup of the International Standards Organization but backed out and started over with ECMA, formerly known as the European Computer Manufacturers Association.

Sun proposed to ECMA a process that would have put the future of Java in the hands of the Sun-centric "Java community process," but ECMA stripped that language out and instead put itself in control. The change opened the way for Microsoft and others to try to exert more influence over the standard.

Antagonism between Microsoft and Sun over Java is longstanding: In a high-profile lawsuit, Sun has accused Microsoft of trying to corrupt Java by making it run differently on Windows machines.

Standardization is the process of defining exactly how a technology functions. This broadens the technology's appeal because it makes it easier to adopt. But Sun has struggled with how much control to give up to others and how much to retain.

Sun invented Java as a method of writing software that would be able to run on any type of computer. This feat is accomplished by running the Java programs within a Java "runtime environment," special software that intercepts Java commands and translates them into terms the computer can understand.

Java initially showed up as a way to download programs over the Internet to Web browsers. But since then, Sun has spread Java into servers and has begun trying to encourage its use in devices such as set-top boxes and cell phones.

IBM believes all companies should have an equal say in Java and that Sun has too much control. "It's a disagreement we're having with Sun about this," said Rod Smith, vice president of Java at IBM, in an interview today.

"It's been a foundation for us that we wanted to see Java standardized. We think ECMA looks like a good place to do this," Smith said.

Both IBM and Sun today invoked the oft-repeated phrase of "cooperate on standards and compete on implementation" as the best way to deal with Java's future. For IBM, that means reducing the disproportionate influence of Sun in the standards-setting process so it doesn't have an advantage competing in Java products, said Rod Smith, vice president of Java at IBM.

But for Sun, the refrain means removing the standards-setting process from the politics of ECMA. Sun has a strong "church and state" separation to keep the profit-minded parts of Sun from having unfair influence over the Java software, Sueltz assured reporters and analysts at a news conference today.

Sun also will have a stronger program to work with Java licensees and partners, Sueltz said. "We are redoubling our efforts in making sure we work with the community," she said.

But IBM's Smith--despite having dinner with Sueltz last night--didn't feel Sun was communicating that well. Upon hearing the news that Sun is eliminating royalties and license fees for the desktop version of Java.

"We haven't been briefed on it at all," Smith said upon hearing the news this morning. "As a licensee, it seems like there would be some quotes [in the news release] saying, 'Gee, this would be a good thing.'"