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Java licence issues still have a part to play

Five years to Java on Linux, next is Java open source

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The law, some say, is an ass and it is quite possible that mule-like legal stubbornness has lain at the heart of the time it has taken for Sun Microsystems to get Java on Linux.

According to Sun chief open source officer Simon Phipps, resolving the legal issues around the Java licence took five years, which is why he is not speculating on how long the next step - making Java open source - will actually take.

"Java wasn't available on GNU/Linux because the Java binary licence was framed in such a way that non-commercial distribution found the terms in the licence poisonous," Phipps said.

There were several terms that fitted this definition, and they were included for what was, in Java terms, a good reason - to maintain compatibility in the market. "Compatibility here means a market where no one has an unfair advantage, so no company, including Sun, has an unfair advantage in the market, and that no company can get one."

Part of Phipps's job has been to work with companies such as Canonical - maker of Ubuntu - to find out what it thought was wrong with the licence and from that point write a licence that addresses its concerns. This is now in place and the Linux vendors have accepted it.

The other problem for Java has been that, because it has not been written with GNU/Linux, its packaging had not evolved in the same way.

"The way you installed it on Linux was just awful," he said. "There was this self-extracting binary and it dumped all the files in a directory and you were left to use your best skill and judgement to assemble them into a working system."

The solution was to build a new community on Java.Net where people can go and get all that they need to build a package for the GNU/Linux system. "We then worked with some of the GNU/Linux distributors to build really good installers. We are hoping that all the other distributors will come over and use the bits to do their own installers. What this means is that a whole range of software projects that have till now only been available for Java SE, such as NetBeans, can now be used on Linux as well. We have unlocked the GNU/Linux marketplace for Java, and believe we have done it without giving anyone an unfair advantage."

The next step is how Sun goes forward and makes Java SE free software without giving any company an unfair advantage. The key element here will be what licence that is chosen. The objective is to create a genuine Java space where there can be a synchronisation of interests.

"We don't have an answer yet," he said, "but we want to work with open source communities to get an answer."

So he is seeking input from the wider community and has not ruled out any licence options. "The obligation is to try and get it right because otherwise there might be an unfair advantage for someone."

As for when we can actually expect to see open source Java, Phipps would not be drawn.

"It took five years to get Java onto Linux because of the legal issues, so I wouldn't want to comment at the moment, but as Jonathan Schwartz said, 'we'll do it as soon as we can'."

These moves fit, in Phipps's view, with changes occurring in the business models for software vendors. "What firms now have to do is adjust how they monetise, because you can no longer monetise by charging for the right to use the know-how," he observed. "Users now look at what is 'there' in the operating system or package management system and they pick from that to assemble solutions.

"And when the business is ready to put that solution into production they are then willing to spend money on support and services. So the money in the game moves from the point of selection to the point of value. If you buy that as a paradigm, then the first thing Sun has to do is make sure its software is there, available, because in the future the money will not come from people making selections, but from people who are putting software into production." ®

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