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Open Letter on Java Stirs Hornet's Nest

As is often the case in the technology world, the tussle started with an open letter, in this case from Rod Smith, IBM's vice president of emerging technologies.

In his public missive to Rob Gingell, Sun Microsystems vice president, Smith got the spat started by suggesting the companies put their heads together to create an open source version of Java.

Now, the letter looks like an opening salvo in a challenge to Sun's ownership of the Java programming language it created -- all because one side wanted to foster a discussion about Java possibly becoming open source. Before the letter, the idea had been the topic of private discussions.

Bob Sutor, IBM director of WebSphere infrastructure software, said the company is not singling out Sun, or trying to force the company to open up its code. As stewards of the Java language, he said, it only makes sense that the two leaders in the space work issues out first before bringing other companies into the discussion.

"We're trying to cut right to the chase with this, in terms of who needs to be involved," he told internetnews.com. "We carefully went over this letter to make sure it was very positive and constructive, and say that we want to work together, we're willing to put our money where our mouths are."

With an open source Java implementation, he said, companies that develop software for the enterprise wouldn't have to reinvent the wheel for every application.

Sutor is in the camp that believes Java as an open source programming language would create a real challenge to the dominance Microsoft's .NET platform holds in the developer community.

But Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with research firm Redmonk, said IBM's decision to create a dialog via an open letter doesn't bode well for successful discussions of the issue.

"The notion itself isn't necessarily bad. The means in which it was executed is not something we particularly agree with, or think is the right way to do things," he told internetnews.com. "We couldn't think of an initiative off the top of our head that began with an open letter, and was successful. Viewed that way, you have to wonder why they chose that route."

While the methods might be in question, IBM's comments underscore the findings of a report obtained by internetnews.com by Washington, D.C.-based research firm Precursor. The report, published Tuesday, finds IBM "is trying to unify the fragmented and warring Java camp under its command and then unite it with the open source community."

Sun, on the other hand, has had a difficult time building a successful business practice around Java, despite its control over branding, certification and royalty collections.

Joe Keller, vice president, Java Web Services and Tools Marketing, discussed Sun's reaction to the IBM letter at a press briefing in New York Wednesday. Sun's main concern is whether or not open-sourcing Java would pave the way for increased compatibility.

"Discussions are going on," Keller told internetnews.com. "And we're really trying to understand what they were getting at because it confused us a little bit. What is it they want, because source is available. So, is that what they're worried about? Is it that they wanted to open-source their implementation? Because they have every right to do that."

One of IBM's suggestions has been to follow the Linux open-source model to a certain extent. Red Hat Linux, the commercial implementation of the open source Linux kernel, isn't entirely compatible with other Linux operating systems.

"If you build an application that uses Red Hat Advanced Server, that application is not likely to run on SuSE or Montavista, or any of the other Linux distributions, so it's not a really good model to hold up for compatibility," Stephen Borcich, executive director, of Sun's Java systems and security marketing, said Wednesday.

As pointed out by Bill Whyman, Precursor president and technology strategist and author of the report: "Open Sourcing Java -- Sun Hasn't Said No."

The reason for this, he told internetnews.com, is because Sun realizes it has a weakness when it comes to commercializing Java outside the Java Community Process (JCP), which it controls.

"Sun has a lot of deep problems that don't have any easy -- if any -- answers," he said. "Ultimately, they're going to have to talk to their partners and their customers and talk about what they are going to do about Java, because what they've been doing hasn't been working for them."

It's not just open sourcing Java, he continued. The issue is more about other areas Sun has fallen short in the Web Services movement, such as Interoperability (WS-I) and Java Tools Community (JTC), which was created when Sun and IBM couldn't come to terms with a merger of the NetBeans and Eclipse integrated development environments (IDE) .

NetBeans, despite Sun's involvement, lags behind the former IBM-led Eclipse project. The NetBeans site claims approximately one million downloads, while Eclipse puts its downloads around 18 million.

"(The open source debate) is not an isolated incident and it's not an accident that it's is happening now," Whyman said. "It's a reflection of the point that Sun owns Java and its weakness is radiating throughout the Java community."

Whyman's report seems to indicate that Sun's reticence is harming the language's standing against Microsoft. While the company continues to hold onto control of Java through the JCP, uptake by software companies like SAP and Oracle could be minimal. As such, the report finds only about three million higher-end developers use the Java platform, compared to Microsoft's eight million. Opening up the source code, the report finds, would remove an obstacle to the open source community's acceptance of Java.

In the end, the open source issue will come down to one thing, according to O'Grady: Why is this in Sun's best interests? To that, Whyman agrees, stating in his report that Sun's only real differentiator with other companies is it's ownership an intellectual property rights of the Java language; without it, it's just another box maker.

"I think that that's what people so far have failed to do," O'Grady said. "People can explain why open source is good for other people, but the fact is, it's Sun's invention. I think they've been a pretty good steward of the language, I think it's a relatively open process. So if people really want to make it open, somebody step up and explain why it's in the best interest of Sun."

Clint Boulton contributed to this story.