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Sun software - more prestige than power?

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I've said it before (four years ago, to be precise), and I'll say it again. Software is in the ascendant at Sun Microsystems. Last time I said it, the then up-and-coming Jonathan Schwartz had been appointed software executive vice president.

Schwartz's recent confirmation as chief executive of a company famed for "systems" completes both his personal Odyssey and the long journey from night into day for Sun's software strategy. Topping that journey is the return of Rich Green, a 15-year Sun veteran who'd quit for start up riches and takes up as executive vice president for software. Green led Sun's work on Java.

While the times are, indeed, a-changing - Sun has a more energized and relatively coherent software strategy than at any point in its history, while clashes with the open source community over licensing seem to have abated - there remain two nagging, and connected, issues the company must tackle.

Getting developers to use Sun's Java software and to also make money from them. Speaking ahead of Sun's annual JavaOne conference next week in San Francisco, California, Java developers made it clear they rely on Sun to protect and maintain Java. Use Sun's Java products, though? That's another story.

The lead portal developer working for a large non-profit, using IBM's WebSphere instead of Sun's Java Enterprise System (JES), told The Register Sun's role is to provide a stabilizing influence through the Java Community Process [JCP], which rises above the industry politics and attempts by vendors to get proprietary lock in.

"Where they [Sun] are going with Java provides stability, in that there is one owner. I [once] had to work with Microsoft's JVM and Sun's JVM - that was such a pain, it made it really difficult. Having one owner is a good thing. Sun is taking a good approach with the JCP," he said under condition of anonymity.

A Washington Stage-based development manager working with a large content management vendor, who also wished to remain anonymous, supports this view. "I look at Sun mainly as someone who moves the platform forward... I have a trust in them. Over the last 20 years Sun has been good at moving things forward," he said.

It doesn't get much better on tools. Developers aren't buying attempts by Sun to convince them its NetBeans open source Java integrated development environment (IDE) and framework is winning the download wars, and providing a viable alternative to the industry-backed Eclipse.

As a measure of where the hype meats reality, a single NetBeans representative was on hand outside the recent EclipseCon conference in Santa Clara, California, to pass out NetBeans CDs to indifferent attendees. Eclipse, for its part, is stumping up the cash for a booth on the JavaOne show floor, leading many to conclude JavaOne will accelerate the group's momentum.

Harrahs Entertainment senior software architect Alex Garrison summed it up bluntly: "I don't see any future in NetBeans." Garrison, using IBM's Rational Application Developer (RAD), believes it's too risky for corporate shops like Harrahs to pick a development environment with relatively little big-name backing, like NetBeans.

"The fact it's a product only from Sun and I can use open source products like Eclipse and Struts that have a large market share and lots of people supporting them. NetBeans doesn't seem like a good win/win for my company," Garrison said. The Washington-State-based developer added that his company uses Eclipse despite free offers of NetBeans.

Also missing for developers is a complete enterprise middleware platform with adequate services and support. The portal developer on IBM's WebSphere questioned the level of ready product and integration Sun could offer him. "IBM has business partners who provided 75 per cent of the backbone we needed. IBM gave us a total platform - the application server, portal server, transaction server.. everything was in one package. With Sun, I'd have to get Glassfish, but then what? Do they have a translator or content management system we can plug into right now?"

There's been a lot of speculation and debate over the likely open sourcing of Java, especially now Schwartz is Sun's CEO. Enterprise developers, though, are unwilling to see Java opened up, and are looking to Sun to maintain a cool head.

Sun has taken a step towards open source with Project Glassfish on the back of pressure last year from IBM to open source Java. Garrison, though, said Sun should use its dominant place in the JCP to preserve Java and prevent the introduction of "badly written code" through open source. "If Sun loses control of Java, a lot of immature code has a chance of seeping into the code base. I'm afraid I'm going to get things in my mission-crucial applications that are not well written or supported. I know if I used core classes in Java, they will get supported."

The Washington-State-based development manager agreed. "There are people who cry 'open source, open source, open source' for religious reasons. I don't think every single product needs to be open sourced or that every product gains from being open sourced. The JCP was a good idea and seems to be working," he said.

There is a belief, too, that Java remains a strong platform for enterprise computing while there is skepticism that scripting languages provide an alternative. One of the complaints of scripting languages is that their very flexibility ultimately leads to complexity within an application, making it difficult to change and update the kinds of heavyweight enterprise applications that get built using Java.

To suggest, this though, can ignite a flame war, as Java father James Gosling recently discovered.

Garrison backed both Gosling and Sun. "They [scripting languages] will come and go, but they will not replace more mature languages. It's one thing when you are doing your own website or hobby, but if you are trying to run a big business, you don't want to be on the bleeding edge the whole time," Garrison said.

After more than 20 years in Java, Sun has a place in the hearts of developers. Its ability to stand above the fray is valued as a way to ensure Java's evolution.

The company, though, must think seriously about how it can monetize this good will, for the sake of Wall St and those numbers Schwartz promised to break out. So far, Sun has talked about offering services around software, but hasn't exactly outlined what these are.

As far at the portal developer using IBM's WebSphere is concerned, the course of action is clear. "The biggest thing they need to do is get their own house in order and figure out what it is they are doing," he said, adding frankly: "I don't know how they can change their business model to reach someone in my position." ®

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