On Sun, Java and Open Source

Fundamentalists clash

Analysis Sun says open sourcing Java code will fragment and devalue the platform. Sun's opponents say that under the current community process development is too slow. They're both right, but the debate, which Scott McNealy regards as synthetic - an issue manufactured by hypocritical competitors - highlights what people really want from a technology. It's an issue that finds Sun on the right side, but failing to convince skeptics. We'll argue that it should simply ignore them because the proof that Sun has it more right than wrong was evident in every corner of the huge JavaOne conference this week. JavaOne 2004 sees the community in rude health.

Underlying the debate about open source is about what the real role of a technology company should be. Should it serve a purpose for other businesses - as an enabler - or one that justifies own existence? Technology companies have tended to do the latter, and this reached a crescendo of hyperbole in the dot.com era.

Unfortunately open source advocates sometimes sound like the worst offenders. The strongest argument against open source is that it's an abstraction, and the process doesn't in itself cure anything. Issues like "transparency" and "the freedom to tinker" don't appeal to technology buyers. Quite the opposite, at times: CIOs worry that the fact that source code is available is an invitation for expensive consultants or scruffy BoFHs alike to write themselves into lucrative and quite unnecessary contracts.

The arguments for open source are most convincing when they're articulated in terms of outcomes. Open source has huge benefits for security, and can even out crinkles in the economy which permit vendors to charge too much for software of limited value. (TCP/IP isn't a $29 or a $99 proposition, and Microsoft Office can't be priced at $349 for very much longer).

Sun's position isn't easy to articulate, because Java is at least three important things under one name - a framework, a VM and a language - and each of which has a different merits for ownership.

Every attendee we met at JavaOne has ideas on speeding up development, but we couldn't find anyone who thought open sourcing Java was a going to make it better. Schwartz perfectly expresses the sentiment of Java developers when he says, "The process I'm sure has got flaws everywhere you look, but my God, it's worked."

Alas Sun is caught between two sets of fundamentalists.

In the open source community the right to fork is viewed in the same way as the NRA views the Second Amendment. But it's the last thing that Java developers or CIOs want to hear. If open source developers want a true software libre equivalent, there's nothing to stop them writing one. We already have Mono, which may fail in its goal to be a .NET compatible framework but may succeed in the long term in providing much of what Java offers. It has a long way to go.

The other set of fundamentalists live on Wall Street, with their notion that vertically integrated companies like Sun are inefficient, because they don't squeeze costs out of the system. (It's the analysts who should read customer's comments left at this weblog.). Wall Street really doesn't want Sun around at all in its present shape: it would much rather see a standalone Java company. It's funny that you don't hear them call for Redmond to split Microsoft into a Visual Studio company, and an Office company. Bill Gates says that Longhorn will cost as much as the Apollo space program; Apple has proved that it can do much of that with only a fraction of the resources. But that's something else.

The sign that Sun is doing, at the very least, a pretty reasonable job here was in the enthusiastic response from the show floor to its Java Studio Creator IDE, formerly Project Rave. The GPL release of its gimmicky 3D Desktop Looking Glass undoubtedly won more column inches, but where it matters, Sun is delivering. Politics is by definition a messy business: a good outcome doesn't come with 0 errors and 0 warnings, like a nice clean build. Fundamentalists don't like the political process, and they're never going to be happy, but from Sun's stewardship of Java the rest of the technology industry can learn a lot. The outcome speaks for itself. ®

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