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Can Oracle Swing it on SWT in Java?

Preying for pragmatism

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IDC has offered to charge $500 to tell you what's commonly felt in the Valley: Java faces a potentially better future under Oracle than under Sun Microsystems.

You can pay for the report here or read extracted highlights from entrepreneur and Cnet blogger Dave Rosenberg here.

In short: Oracle's software business is so dependent on Java and so important to Oracle, compared to Sun Microsystems' old software business to it, that Oracle needs to keep Java open and cannot afford to alienate a community that keeps the platform and language alive and modern.

Anyone with half a brain could see the importance of Java to Oracle's applications and middleware, and that Oracle is better financed and better managed than Sun ever was. Let's not forget, too, that Java was one of Oracle's primary reasons for buying Sun, before things got muddy with all that hardware nonsense. Therefore Java, and groups associated with it, face a potentially more efficient and moneyed future than under Sun.

The active word in all of this is 'potentially', because Oracle has refused to talk about its plans for the Java Community Process (JCP) or Java and it's still early days, so nobody can say what's really going to happen. Oracle has also locked JCP members under non-disclosure agreements and no one wants to be the first to spoil the honeymoon by loosening their lips.

When we get beyond the high-level, banner commitment to Java and dig into the politics and technology surrounding it the picture gets complicated. That's because there's Java, and then there's Java. Or rather, there's the brand of Java Sun favored - Swing, which it promoted through the JCP and Sun's Netbeans IDE - and there's the Standard Widget Toolkit (SWT), originally created by IBM and backed by the Eclipse Foundation.

IBM created Eclipse in 2001 as one of many efforts at the time to destabilize Sun's perceived control of Java, a platform it - like Oracle - had bet its future on. IBM fought strategic and tactical battles against Sun to literally eclipse Sun's role as chief steward over Java.

In many ways, IBM succeeded. Eclipse became a more widespread and grass-rootsy movement than the top-down, closed-shop style of the JCP that alienated technology creatives. In pure market share, Eclipse become the preferred open-source IDE for Java developers.

Now that Swing's chief patron Sun is out of the picture, did SWT win the war and will Swing be washed away by the tide of history? All signs are that Oracle will don the Swing mantle vacated by Sun.

Some years back, Oracle - despite its membership of the JCP - rebuked Sun when its chief executive said Oracle was backing Netbeans. Oracle said it had no plans to back Netbeans and that it continues to back its JDeveloper IDE and the Eclipse framework.

Now, though, Oracle is doubling down on Swing: the database giant has named Netbeans as one of its chosen IDEs. But there are, of course, some limitations to stop JDeveloper getting eaten alive. Oracle will invest in the NetBeans IDE and NetBeans.org community, but that investment will make it the best IDE for Java Standard Edition scripting languages, mobile, JavaFX and Solaris. JDeveloper, with Oracle's own Application Development Framework (ADF) Java programming framework, remains the corporate flag carrier.

When it comes to SWT, Oracle does have a foot in that particular camp as it's a member of Eclipse - although it joined because it felt the community had strayed away from the pure religion. Oracle was like a number of big vendors at the time: it joined to keep a watching brief on Eclipse from the inside of an organization and movement few understood or appreciated in the early 2000s.

Along the way, Oracle has created its Enterprise Pack, a set of certified plug-ins for developers using Eclipse with the WebLogic application server Oracle bought from BEA Systems.

The question is: How committed is Oracle to SWT and Eclipse? Oracle has certainly gone a lot further than Sun by joining Eclipse and by being an active member. However, Oracle's prime IDE remains JDeveloper, working with Swing in ADF.

Oracle executives appeared at the recent EclipseCon in Santa Clara, California, to present their message of community and Java.

That's left Eclipse executive director Mike Milkinkovich at least pragmatic and positive on what happens next in the relationship. Milkinkovich said he "absolutely believed" there's room for SWT and Swing in the industry - a view he said Oracle shares. "They are very pragmatic" he told The Reg.

Unless Oracle institutes a radical change at the JCP and reshapes its relationship with the group, there's a good chance Oracle will assume the role of Sun by stewarding Swing, thanks to the time and money Oracle and others have invested in Swing there. And unless Oracle ups its commitment to Eclipse, that could leave Eclipse as the alternative beacon of Java calling out to developers.

Things couldn't have got any worse for Java under Sun and Oracle can certainly throw more cash, people and more efficient processes at the technology and institutions around it. So yes, Java faces a brighter future under Oracle. The question is, whether it's a future of status quo or whether there will be a change in the political landscape that shapes Java. ®

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