Sun keeps its foot in Java's door

Could Microsoft's COOL unseat the language?

March 16, 1999 -- When it comes to Java, Sun Microsystems is beginning to look a bit like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, desperately trying to prevent the programming language from fragmenting under pressure from the competition, while still working to achieve the company's vision of a world with a JVM on every microprocessor.

Java has undergone a number of major changes over the last few months, not the least of which has been its new status as the pilot product for the Sun Community Source Licensing (SCSL) model, introduced in December 1998. Under the model, source code for the Java 2 platform (formerly JDK 1.2) is available to anyone who cares to download it, with the caveat that all products developed around the code must be licensed under a second, royalty-based license and pass Sun's Java certification requirements.

"Our goal has always been to foster industry participation in the usage and development of the Java technology, while preserving a unified platform," said Alan Baratz, president of Sun's Java Software division in a statement. "The new model achieves that balance while opening participation to anyone and enabling collaboration among the participants. This guarantees far more rapid innovation than ever before possible."

SCSL is intended to appease developers who have been pressuring Sun to relinquish its iron-fisted control of Java, but lets the company maintain a valuable revenue stream. In contrast with the old licensing structure, a developer's noncommercialized innovation around Java is not required to be turned over to Sun, allowing developers to control substantial intellectual property.

Sun is hoping Java can ride the recent momentum behind what IT research firm Gartner Group termed the open source community's "killer app": Linux. Sun's Java rhetoric is couched in the terms generally associated with Linux. Baratz said he envisions a "community of licensees that may freely participate and cooperate in the improvement of the Java technology base."

And SCSL for Java could very well work, according to Gartner Group analyst Daryl Plummer.

"SCSL is not the same as open source, but it could mean big benefits for Sun. [SCSL] opens up the doors and lets vendors innovate who wouldn't consider it before because they didn't want to sell their souls to Sun. We expect to see a significant expansion of Java as a result," said Plummer.

It also means Sun will get to keep at least one foot in the door. Sun has thwarted several attempts to wrest control of Java from its hands. In January this year, the National Committee for Information Technology Standards (NCITS) rejected a bid from the Java Real Time Working Group (including members Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard) to manage development of realtime extensions for Java.

COOLing off Java

Still, some companies, particularly Sun's archrival Microsoft, are not expected to sit idly by while Sun corners the market. SCSL is unlikely to seduce Redmond into the Java fold, said a Gartner Group report, in part because elements of the JDK (JavaBeans, RMI, and JFC) are redundant with existing Microsoft APIs like COM, DCOM, and the Win32 GUI. Furthermore, Microsoft's Java extensions, including the J/Direct extension, are incompatible with Sun's Java test suite.

If you listen to Sun tell it, the last time Microsoft tried to compete with Java, it was through the development of a "polluted Java" in the form of the Visual J++ development tool. Microsoft, alleges Sun, released VJ++ in the hope that developers would unwittingly build Java-like applications that were incompatible with Sun's "pure Java." That case has yet to be resolved, but Sun did win an injunction against future Microsoft Java-branded products based on VJ++.

This time, Redmond may be taking a more direct approach.

About the time of the injunction, Microsoft leaked news of the development of a new C++ object-oriented programming language, code-named "COOL," integrated with the company's COM+ technology (an expansion of COM).

Details on COOL have not been forthcoming, according to Gartner Group analyst David Smith, but Microsoft has not denied the program. Smith suspects the language will differ from Java in at least one key respect: It will not be a cross-platform language.

"Microsoft's strategy is Windows, so cross-platform for them means Windows 95, NT, and 98," said Smith.

COOL could be competitive on a language level, he added, but the only company with the market presence to unseat Java will still have an uphill battle due to flagging credibility.

If and when COOL appears, it may be an all-or-nothing proposition, as Microsoft appears to be abandoning Java altogether, said Gartner Group, pointing to the fact that the beta release of Internet Explorer 5.0 does not install the Microsoft JVM by default.

Chai, anyone?

Hewlett-Packard isn't planning a Microsoft-style coup, but the company's position has been divided on Java. Although HP has licensed Java from Sun, publicly the company is committed to its ChaiVM technology, an independently developed embedded virtual machine optimized for consumer devices.

ChaiVM is more innocuous than VJ++ or COOL, says HP, as it complies with the JVM specification, and its source code can be licensed from HP.

HP has criticized Sun for stifling Java development and was a key player in the Java Real Time Working Group's petition to assume management of the development of Java realtime extensions.

Fragmentation of Java also could come from the only entity without a commercial interest in the language -- the open source community itself. Gartner Group predicts that hackers will attempt to produce a freeware version of Java by 2002 that is not based on Sun's implementation, under the GNU General Public License.

Learn more about this topic

  • Microsoft's COM+ preview page
  • HP's Chai home page
  • Sun Community Source Licensing FAQ
  • To read the reasoning behind Sun's new licensing model, see "Sun Community Source License Principles," by Richard Gabriel and Bill Joy, at
  • For other downloads from Sun, visit the Community Source Code Licensing Community home page
  • See JavaWorld's story on the recent release of the Java 2 source code
  • For the complete Java 2 SDK license agreement, go to
  • "Sun licenses Java Media APIs to Linux developers," January 1999 SunWorld news story
  • "Sun scores in realtime Java debate," January 1999 SunWorld news story
  • "Sun announces support for Java TV API for digital interactive TV" January 1999 SunWorld news story
  • "Sun, Real Time Java Group to meet," December 1998 SunWorld news story
  • "Java ExpoZander announces new Java licensing" December 1998 SunWorld news story