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HP steams ahead on Java

Doing Java without the help of Sun Microsystems just got another step easier as HP lends a hand to cloning compatibility software.

Thanks to Hewlett-Packard, doing Java without the help of Sun Microsystems just got another step easier.

Hewlett-Packard has contributed its own technology to an effort called "Mauve" to develop a clone of Sun's Java Compatibility Kit tests otherwise available only from Sun for a fee. The new move is scheduled to be announced Monday.

Java technology, at least theoretically, lets programs written in the Java language run on any machine that has a "virtual machine," which is software that translates the Java instructions into the native language of a specific chip. Compatibility testing software is needed to guarantee that the Java programs will work right, particularly important in the Java realm where software is supposed to be able to run on so many different systems.

In recent months, Sun loosened its Java licensing terms considerably, but not enough for HP's tastes.

The cloned compatibility software outflanks Sun's latest effort to widen the support for Java, in which the company delayed licensing fees to a later stage in the Java development process.

Not only will the compatibility-checking software be available for free, but it will become part of the nonproprietary "open source" movement, in which anybody may see, modify, and redistribute the original programming instructions of the software. Sun has made some of its Java technology available under a Community Source License, an intermediate step between the proprietary and open source realms, but its compatibility tests remain proprietary.

Unsurprisingly, Sun doesn't condone the independent testing effort for its "write once, run anywhere" Java technology.

"Compatibility testing in general is a very complex process, and our Java compatibility tests are the only ones that provide the brand name power and the guarantee of compatibility," a Sun spokesperson said, likening the outside compatibility tests to taking your own temperature and diagnosing yourself instead of going to the doctor.

The HP contributions will join the Mauve project to develop an open source test tools for Java cloners. Current Mauve contributors include Cygnus Solutions, which is hosting the site and has written open source Java software tools, the GNU Classpath Project, which has written software libraries Java programs need to run, and Transvirtual, which has written its own Java clone called Kaffe.

"An open source Java test suite is essential to the adoption of Java as an open alternative to other proprietary technologies, said Transvirtual Chief Executive Tim Wilkinson in a statement. "We believe that open source is the best way to provide true compatibility between competing Java implementations, and is the only way to prevent fragmentation of the language."

The new Java testing software is scheduled for availability Monday. The Mauve work and HP's ChaiVM is based on Sun's published Java specifications.

However, Sun says the competitors are underestimating the complexity of compatibility testing. "When you do self-testing in that way, it's not nearly as comprehensive. It's important to understand our process involves a lot more than just running the code through the actual tests," the spokesperson said.

Under Sun's new licensing terms, companies may try out Java for free under a development license, paying fees only when the company starts to ship Java products. By Sun's rules, a company needs to pass the tests in Sun's Java Compatibility Kit in order to earn the Java logo.

HP developed its own Java test suite to ensure the Java compatibility of its "ChaiVM" clean-room version of Java--a version written without peeking at the Sun source code. ChaiVM is geared for embedded devices--electronic machines such as personal digital assistants or factory robots that pervade the industrialized world but that most people don't actually think of as ordinary computers.

HP, an immense computing and electronics company, is of two minds when it comes to Java. While the Embedded Software Operation isn't happy with the Java licensing terms, the enterprise part of HP isn't at odds with Sun.

Working on clones of Java technology is technologically challenging, but Sun's new Community Source License, which lets any developer look at the Java technology source code, made cloning Java a touchier business from a legal standpoint.

Stricter licensing terms meant it used to be hard to see Java source code, so it was easier to guarantee that Java clones hadn't been tainted by knowledge from people who had seen the original goods from Sun. But now, developers have to be very careful not to include any Sun technology in work independent of Sun. GNU, for example, cautions Classpath Project contributors: "Never under any circumstances refer to Sun's code while working on Classpath."

This isn't the first example of Cygnus supporting open source movement. Although Cygnus has many mainstream customers, the company has made a name for itself working on maverick technology.

Historically, chip companies such as Intel have paid Cygnus to write the software tools needed so programmers can get their programs working on a new chip.

Cygnus also has moved into the more avant-garde territory of Linux, an upstart Unix-like operating system gaining in popularity. Intel hired Cygnus to build support for new Pentium features into Linux software tools, and Cygnus contributes that technology back to the open source community. Cygnus also has written Java compilers for the open source community.

In addition, Oracle hired Cygnus to help it bring its Oracle 8i database to Linux. And Corel hired Cygnus to help bring its suite of office programs from Windows to Linux.