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Sun seeks control of Java process

Sun's decision to change tactics for the international standardization of the Java technology boils down to one issue: control.

Sun's decision to change tactics for the international standardization of Java boils down to one issue: control.

Sun decided to change tactics because the company was unwilling to hand over control of the future of the Java technology to a standard-setting committee at the ISO, the International Standards Organization.

As expected, Sun today announced that it submitted its Java specification to ECMA, formerly known as the European Computer Manufacturers Association. If ECMA accepts the task, it would set out rules for how Java works and then pass its standard to the ISO for consideration. ISO certification would make it easier for companies and governments to incorporate Java.

Sun dropped its earlier plan to go through the "publicly available specification" (PAS) process of an ISO committee called JTC1, or the Joint Technical Committee 1.

In a nutshell, the difference between the processes offered by the respective organizations comes down to the method used to control Java. JTC1's methodology and the PAS process hands control of the action to the committee. The Java Community Process lets Sun keep some of the control, namely crucial veto and nominating powers.

The debate over standardizing Java is one facet of Sun's attempts to balance industry acceptance of the technology while also maintaining control of it. Sun believes that standardization will mean more governments will be able to use Java technology and that it will enable other industry standards bodies to refer to it as a cross-platform technology, said Java software president Alan Baratz in a conference call today. In addition, standardizing Java will "increase the comfort level" of Sun's Java technology partners, said Jim Mitchell, vice president of Java technology and architecture.

The change in plans and reluctance to release control could cause trust problems with the Java developer community that supported Sun's bid for standardization, said Rick Ross, president of the JavaLobby, an organization whose members earlier voted overwhelmingly to back Java standardization.

"I think Java developers cared to see Sun in the driver's seat with the stewardship for the Java standard, but hoped also to have an internationally recognized and highly credible governing body behind the process as an ultimate recourse if Sun veered off the course," Ross said. "It's difficult to understand why we can't step to a truly open direction."

Sun will bypass some of the Java control debate by going through ECMA. Nonetheless, the Java Community Process rules that ECMA will operate under carve out a scope of autonomy for the company.

Sun introduced the Java Community Process in December 1998 to address concerns that the company was too dominant in the development of new Java standards. Although outside companies now are allowed to lead development of new specifications, Sun still decides which standards to pursue and selects the leader.

The ECMA committee will edit the specification for relatively minor things such as typos or ambiguities, Mitchell said. "You can't pull out a major chunk and replace it with another major chunk," he said.

Then, assuming the technical committee and ECMA overall approve the specification, JTC1 decides whether to approve it with a simple yes or no vote, Mitchell said.

Although Sun has transmitted the Java specification to ECMA, Sun will formally present the specification at the group's June 24 meeting in Kyoto, Japan, Baratz said. ECMA's general assembly then will be able to vote on the standard at its December 1999 meeting. Going through the PAS process likely would have taken about the same time, he said.

After ECMA approval, the specification would be submitted to ISO through JTC1, he said. However, though Sun is still committed to ISO submission, the company still would be "pleased" if it achieved standardization only by ECMA and not ISO, Baratz said. Sun won't turn over the Java brand name to ECMA or ISO, he said.

Baratz described the Java Community Process as "a collaborative, industry participate process" that can respond in "Internet time" to produce Java specifications "with the highest level of technical excellence."

Ross, though, noted that some have characterized the Java Community Process as the Java Gated Community Process. "I think there is a large-scale problem represented by the pay-to-play model that requires a $5,000 entry fee at the door. There are some barriers to entry," Ross said. In addition, some companies--including Hewlett-Packard--object to the loss of their own intellectual property through the Java Community Process.

Asked how much control Sun has over the Java Community Process, Mitchell said three on a scale of one to 10--in other words, very little.

The question of maintenance
Baratz said the decision to change plans was the result of JTC1's changes to the PAS process at a January meeting in Rio de Janeiro. In particular, the change in question revolves around the issue of how active the "maintenance" of the specification should be.

"Initially, Sun understood maintenance to be minor adjustments such as bug fixes," Baratz said today, but it became clear that what JTC1 wanted was in fact control over "ongoing evolution."

Sun has taken an unambiguous position on the maintenance issue in its proposal to ECMA, where the company says the ECMA technical committee should carry out only "passive maintenance" and Java technology enhancements should come from the Java Community Process.

JTC1's rules state that the PAS submitter--in this case, Sun--"is requested to state its willingness for cooperation with JTC1 for both ongoing maintenance and revisions," according to the organization.