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Java Remains Java (For Now)

Recent comments from a Java technology evangelist are stirring up the debate again over whether Sun Microsystems would -- or even should -- open up Java to the open source process.

At the company's quarterly update event in Shanghai this week, Sun's Raghavan Srinivas reportedly said an open source version of Java "will happen," but it was just a matter of time. The comments were vague on details, pointing to a one- or two-year timeframe. The debate comes on the heels of an announcement by company COO Jonathan Schwartz that Sun plans to open source a chunk of its Solaris server operating system.

Sun spokesperson Russ Castronovo said he wasn't sure that Srinivas' comments signaled a true change in policy.

"Has there been a change or is this person talking out of school? Any numbers of things are possible," Castronovo said. "[Sun's former vice president of the developer platforms group] Rich Green was the last person to give an official answer on open sourcing Java and his answer was that Sun was discussing it but had not made a decision."

Sun has put a lot of effort in the last year to not only brand but also protect its marquee programming language. But that hasn't stopped the community from asking. In separate letters to Sun, Eric Raymond, President of the Open Source Initiative and Rod Smith, vice president of emerging technologies at IBM Software, called for Sun's participation in an independent project to free the language from its proprietary bindings.

"Frankly I'm not sure how seriously to take Sun's announcement," Raymond told internetnews.com. "There is bitter factional warfare inside Sun over this issue and they've done a lot of thrashing about it in the past. I wouldn't be astonished if it were retracted. Of course I'm hoping that doesn't happen. An open-source JRE [Java Runtime Environment] would be a great thing for the community, and avoid problems for Sun later on. If they don't open-source now, someone in the Java Community Process (the most likely candidate being IBM) is going to issue a certified, Java-branded open source implementation and rip control out of Sun's hands, doing them far more damage than if Sun controls the transition and keeps the Java brand intact."

Historically, CEO Scott McNealy has an aversion to opening Java. When asked about either opening Solaris or Java to the same public processes as Linux, McNealy told reporters this week that he would be more than happy to oblige if all of his competitors did the same.

In some ways, Java is already open. Anyone can get the source. The major restriction is that if companies want to redistribute changes, they have to pay a six-figure sum and pass a test suite.

In a recent blog post on his Web site, Java creator James Gosling called the thought of open sourcing Java "a very big issue" and said the only thing that companies could get from completely opening Java is to be able to skip testing.

"If we do something to make Java even more open-source than it is already, having safeguards to protect the developer community will be something we pay a lot of attention to," Gosling's blog read. "Carefully done, open-sourcing could actually promote interoperability by making it easier for disparate groups to align behind one code base."

Gosling said messages from concerned developers show, "they're afraid that if Java is open-sourced then someone will try to fragment the community by creating incompatible versions of Java and ignore the community process, just like Microsoft did. Microsoft did a lot of damage to the community and many developers strongly do not want that to happen again," he said.

Shawn Willett, Principal analyst with Current Analysis also points to the Java Community Process (JCP) as a very open process.

"If Solaris is open sourced, yeah, it would probably make sense to then open source Java, but this is all theoretical?" he said.

Sun is now preparing for its annual JavaOne conference, which kicks off at the end of June in San Francisco.