Simon Phipps opened a can of open-source worms. It was the final week of June, and Phipps, a British-based Sun Microsystems (SUNW) executive, was speaking at a conference. He was responding to skepticism over whether Sun would ever make that bold step awaited by many software developers: When, exactly, would Sun publish the code of its Java programming language freely and openly online? In industry parlance, when would Sun "open-source" Java?
The question has long plagued Sun executives, and there's a lot riding on the answer. After all, the move would make the language open to legions of programmers, who could make the technology more widely available and relevant—to say nothing of how the move might generate interest in Sun's other products and reduce costs for a company struggling to achieve profitability.
Phipps, Sun's chief open source officer, said the transition would come in a matter of months, not years. What he meant was it would happen within the next 10 or 11 months. But what attendees quickly trumpeted to the blogosphere that the move was imminent. So Phipps had to go back to the press to clarify that it wouldn't be happening quite that soon. And so began a fresh round of concerns whether Sun was dragging its heels on open-sourcing Java.
The back and forth is emblematic of Sun's efforts to embrace the open-source movement. Executives like Phipps frequently point to the company's open-software roots in the 1980s, and Sun's major contributions to high-profile projects ranging from Mozilla's Firefox Web browser to the OpenOffice project to the Apache Web server.
And if that's not enough, Sun is in the process of open-sourcing almost all of its software. Not even IBM (IBM)—long friendly to the open-source Linux operating system—has gone that far. You can't attend an open-source conference or event without a cameo appearance by Phipps or other Sun bigwigs like Chief Information Officer Bill Vass, Executive Vice-President of Software Rich Green, or even Chief Executive Jonathan Schwartz (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/08/06,, "Sun's Big Open-Source Bet").
For all these efforts, Sun gets few props from the open-source world. Critics say the company open-sourced its Solaris operating system only because Linux had already beat it in the market. Others say Sun retains too much control of projects even after making them open-source, failing to build a community of developers who together can influence the direction of the software.
Even Sun executives own up to miscues. Schwartz and his predecessor Scott McNealy used to regularly badmouth Linux and the low-cost servers on which it runs in an attempt to defend Sun's more expensive and reliable competing products. That gave rivals like IBM and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) grounds for painting Sun as an enemy to open-source and Linux, a rap that's hard to shake.
Then there's the debate over Java, the language used throughout the Web and corporate programming. "Java is the only thing people ever wanted them to open-source," says Peter Yared, a former Sun executive who's now heading up an open-source startup ActiveGrid. It's a question that several ex-Sun executives have scratched their heads over. Says former Sun executive and BEA Systems (BEAS) founder Bill Coleman, who now heads software startup Cassatt: "I personally think they should have done it years ago."
Now that Sun appears ready to give in, the question is what does it gain? The simple answer: a lot. Consider Java's roles for Sun. First, there's Java, the industry standard on which third-party companies from Oracle (ORCL) to BEA base their applications and even leading open-source projects like JBoss rely. Then there are actual Java programs, add-ons, and support sold by Sun. While Java the standard has been one of the most important movements in software, Sun itself makes very little direct revenue from it.
To people who think like Coleman, that's all the more reason to open-source it. During the end of his tenure as CEO of BEA, Sun was employing some 1,200 engineers to maintain Java—a cost of several hundred million dollars a year and it was only bringing in a tiny percentage of the company's total sales. Costs like those are exactly what has made life so difficult for Sun as it tries to move from a company selling pricey proprietary servers and software to one that's relevant in a world where customers want cheap, flexible commodity technology (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/25/06, "Sun's New Boss: The Same as the Old Boss?").
Still, Sun moved cautiously. Phipps points out that because Java is a standard and a Sun brand, the company had a responsibility to make sure it was well-maintained. Open-sourcing it too early could have meant having the code fragmented into several versions, undercutting the point of having a standard. As Phipps puts it, Java works because no one company has an unfair advantage over its development and it always works the same in any environment. "The question was how do we make it open-source and preserve those two values, and it turns out that's not an easy question to answer," he says. "People who don't have the responsibility pretend to have an easy answer for it."
But, those debates are behind Sun now. Sun says it has unequivocally come down on the side of open-sourcing Java. Even if it's five years too late, it's the right move. For one thing, there are other popular Web scripting languages like PHP and Ruby on Rails that are starting to steal some of Java's thunder, at least for writing Web applications. Yared's company, ActiveGrid, works on making these languages robust enough to use instead of Java in business applications. If Phipps believes Sun has a responsibility to the world's Java developers, then the company has a duty to make sure these other languages don't continue to erode Java's importance (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/13/05, "Java? It's So Nineties"). More practically, many feel Java will get stronger as a result of input from the open-source community.
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER.
There are other benefits for Sun. It's not really giving up revenue by open-sourcing Java, and the more prevalent the language, the more Java gains a foot in the door to sell compatible operating systems, Web servers, and the like. Then there are the less tangible effects. It's likely to reinvigorate Java's software development community, give Sun some good PR, and be another important step in proving Sun can be an open-source good citizen.
In his short tenure as CEO, Schwartz has already left an imprint, announcing a sweeping restructuring that many said was long overdue, but still welcome. Making Java open-source may be his next better-late-than-never maneuver.