Sun's Surprising Openness

That the programming language Java would be open-source software was expectedwhat caught many off guard was exactly how

Few were surprised when Sun Microsystems finally opted to publish the code to its widely used programming language, Java. Sun executives had dropped hints for months that they would make Java freely open to developers, who in turn would be able to tailor and improve the code, used for creating Web-based programs for use on all manner of computer hardware.

What caught some off guard, however, was how Sun (SUNW) would do it. Specifically, Java will be freely available under what's called the general public license (GPL), which also governs the distribution of the Linux open-source operating system. As recently as October, during a conference sponsored by Oracle (ORCL), Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz suggested that Sun might choose a more restrictive licensing structure—the common development and distribution license (CDDL), written when Sun opened its own operating system, Solaris.

While all that may sound like software arcana to some, it has some pretty big implications for how Java gets developed and who benefits from it. With the more commonly used GPL, Java can be more easily bundled and distributed with Linux. "It opens up a whole new set of developers to partner together and to innovate using Java and Linux," says Stuart Cohen, CEO of Open Source Development Labs, a nonprofit organization dedicated to accelerating the growth of Linux-based operating systems. "We think it will accelerate innovation and act as a catalyst to grow the market."

Allaying Incompatibility Fears

Sun hopes so. Rich Green, executive vice-president of software at Sun, says the decision to use GPL is "a pretty significant, surprising step—for us to be so bold as to use an industry standard license that will drive the adoption of Java with every copy of Linux out there." Green says he joined Sun three days before the company said in May that it would open Java—in part, because he demanded it. "We came to the conclusion that we wanted to go with the most widely accepted, the most valued, and the most interestingly evolving open-source license," he says.

In years past, Sun resisted making Java technology freely available for fear that doing so would let developers create incompatible incarnations of the technology. "The whole value of Java has been to write once, run anywhere—any developer working anywhere in the world can take any application or piece of content and be certain that it runs on any desktop, server, or mobile phone," Green says.

To ensure compatibility, Sun had created its own community of developers to agree about how to extend Java. Yet, it didn't entirely prevent developers from going in their own direction. "People started extending Java on their own and open-sourcing it," says Peter Yared, a former Sun executive who is now CEO of software company ActiveGrid.

Finally, Sun executives—led by CEO Schwartz—seem to have set aside incompatibility fears, considering the estimated 4 billion devices that run Java. The reasoning, executives say, is that with such a large proliferation of devices, developers have little incentive to create incompatible code. "Java runs on more devices than Microsoft Windows, Linux, Solaris, Symbian, and the Mac combined," Schwartz wrote in his blog on Nov. 13. "The Java platform is, already, a global standard."

GPL Move Wins Praise

For months, Sun had signaled its intent to make Java freely available under an open-source licensing structure (see, 7/5/06, "Sun: Brew-It-Yourself Java?"). Then, at the Oracle OpenWorld conference, Schwartz suggested that Sun might choose CDDL. Many in the software community did not like the CDDL licensing structure because unlike with Linux, all the rights to changes in the source code went back to Sun (see, 5/8/06, "Sun's Big Open-Source Bet"). By going with GPL, all released improved versions must be made available as free software.

The move was widely applauded. "I'm surprised that Sun was willing to use the GPL license because they usually like to exhibit a lot of control," says Yared. Yet, Yared says he suspects by making Java freely available, Sun wanted to attract innovative open-source developers to Java. "They'd lost so much control that they had nothing to lose by doing it."

Adds Fabrizio Capobianco, CEO of Funambol, a company that makes open-source mobile applications: "We are very excited about this announcement." Ultimately, Capobianco says, this move will not only benefit mobile-applications developers but Sun as well, as it further improves and extends its platform with the help of a large community of developers.

Now, the open-source community is clamoring for more. "I think it's great they chose GPL; it's the most popular license in the world," says Cohen of Open Source Development Labs. "We'd like to see them move Solaris to GPL as well." Sun's Green, during a conference call, hinted that's exactly what Sun may do next.

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