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Five years of open-source Java: Freedom isn't (quite) free

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One Java nation, with liberty and justice for all ... under Oracle and Big Blue

That was strike one against Apache. Strike two was Oracle's refusal to grant Harmony a TCK license, a move that saw the venerated open-source group officially storm out of the JCP.

Apache's JCP representative Geir Magnussen Jnr told us summer 2010, just before the simmering dispute came to a head: "Key to the JCP is the idea that people can independently implement the specifications and distribution license under terms that they - the implementer - choose."

He said the matter has "big ramifications" for not only Harmony, but for the Java ecosystem as a whole.

Harmony has lived on, as a core subset of the open-source Dalvik VM used in Google's fantastically popular Android smartphone platform. Oracle, though, has brought a lawsuit against Google over Android claiming it violates Java patents that it owns, with the suit sucking in Apache.

Oracle's patent infringement lawsuit against Android, under the pretext that Google is splintering the Java standard, suggests that while Java is open it's not a free process. So, too, does the fact that the JCP allowed Apache to leave standing up for its independence. Also going against free is the fact that Oracle has joint control at the top of the OpenJDK with IBM. The chairman of the OpenJDK's governing board is appointed by Oracle while the vice chair is appointed by IBM; as Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond has tweeted, the OpenJDK's new rules favour a duopoly between Oracle and IBM.

The bylaws new OpenJDK rules that were drafted by Oracle chief architect of the Java Platform Group Mark Reinhold with stakeholders from IBM, Eclipse and SUNY Oswego, do encourage outside participation, however. The rules speak of safeguarding "long-term health and growth of the OpenJDK Community by enabling and encouraging its members to act in an open, transparent, and meritocratic manner."

Never a truer word was said. How that pans out remains to be seen.

Oracle's actions do threaten to undermine the work and spirit of OpenJDK. If a commercial entity like Google and a non-profit open-source group like Apache can't capitalise on an open platform and take Java where they like without being sued for billions of dollars, then no amount of rhetoric will make Java "free."

Despite all these issues, OpenJDK can still become an industry success, if not an ideological one. The OpenJDK is the basis for Java SE 7. The OpenJDK will be ported to OS X (JDK 7 for OS X Preview is now available), while SAP, Red Hat and even Twitter have put their weight behind the JCP and OpenJDK project. Twitter's Chris Aniszczyk said: "We plan to contribute in the areas of performance and metrics gathering around garbage collection." Oracle, mean while, plans to extend the open-source Java stable by releasing JavaFX and incorporating it into Java 8 - a move that may just fulfil Java's prior near-misses as a rich client powerhouse.

If Oracle can loosen the reins just enough to allow companies and individuals to become active members contributing to the codebase - not just as "he who squeals loudest" members of an oligarchic steering committee - then the future could brighten up for OpenJDK.

In the meantime Java daddy Gosling - who worked briefly at Oracle just after the Sun acquisition - remains optimistic that it's the community that will keep Oracle honest. He also seems to feel Oracle itself has changed in its handling of Java and the community.

"In its latest chapter, I'm really impressed by the way that Oracle has behaved: their reputation and history are clear, and yet the strength of the community that they have to work with has kept them in line. Java is far stronger today than I would have predicted two years ago," Gosling said. ®

Additional reporting by Gavin Clarke.

Matt Stephens founded independent book publisher Fingerpress, and co-authored Design Driven Testing: Test Smarter, Not Harder.

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