My Thoughts on Oracle v Google

As you've probably heard by now, Oracle has decided to file suit against Google, claiming multiple counts of infringement against Java or JVM patents and copyrights they acquired when they assimilated Sun Microsystems this past year. Since I'm unlikely to keep my mouth shut about even trivial matters, something this big obviously requires at least a couple thousand words.

Who Am I?

Any post of this nature really requires an author to identify where they stand, so their unavoidable biases can be taken with the appropriate dosage of salt. Rather than having you dig through my past and learn who and what I am, I'll just lay it out here.

I am a Java developer. I've been a Java developer since 1996 or so, when I got my first University job writing stupid little applets in this new-fangled web language. That job expanded into a web development position, also using Java, and culminated with me joining a few senior developers for a 6-month shared development gig with IBM's then-nascent Pacific Development Center in Vancouver, BC. Since then I've had a string of Java-related jobs...some as a trenches developer, some as a lead, some as "architect", but all of them heavily wrapped up in this thing called Java. And I can't say that I've ever been particularly annoyed with Java as a language or a platform. Perhaps I haven't spent enough time on other runtimes, or perhaps I've got tunnel-vision after being a Java developer for so many years. But I'd like to think that I've become "seasoned" enough as a developer to realize no platform is perfect, and the manifold benefits of the JVM and the Java platform vastly outweigh the troublesome aspects.

I am an open-source developer. In the late 90s, I worked in earnest on my first open-source project: the LiteStep desktop replacement for Windows. At the time, the LiteStep project was a loosely-confederated glob of C code and amateur C hackers. Being a Windows user at the time, I was looking to improve my situation...specifically, I had worked for years on a small application called Hack-It that exposed aspects of the win32 API normally unavailable through standard Windows UI elements, and I was interested in taking that further. LiteStep was not my creation. It had many developers before me and many after, but my small contribution to the project was an almost complete rewrite in amateur-friendly C++ and a decoupling of the core LiteStep "kernel" from the various plugin mechanisms. I was also interviewed for a Wired article on the then-new domain of "skinning" computers, desktops, applications, and so on, though none of my quotes made it into the article. After LiteStep, I fell back into mostly anonymous corporate software development, all still using Java and many open-source technologies, but not much of a visible presence in the OSS world. Then, in 2004 while working as the lead "Java EE Architect" for a multi-million-dollar US government contract, I found JRuby.

I am a JRuby developer. Since 2004 (or really since late 2005, when I started helping out in earnest) I've been partially responsible for turning JRuby from an interesting novelty project into one of the top Ruby implementations. We've become well known as one of the best-performing – if not the best-performing – Ruby implementations, even faced with increasing competition from the young upstarts. We're also increasingly popular (and perhaps the easiest path) for bringing Ruby and its many paradigm-shifting libraries and frameworks (like Rails) to Java and JVM users around the world – without them having to change platforms or leave any of their legacy code behind. Part of my interest in JRuby has been to bring Ruby to the JVM, plain and simple. I like Ruby, I like the Ruby community, and on most days I like the cockiness and enthusiasm of those community members toward trying crazy new things. But another large part of my interest in JRuby is more sinister: I want to prove to naysayers what a great platform the JVM actually is, and perhaps make them think twice about knee-jerk biases they've carried and cultivated for so many years.

You'll notice I refer to JRuby not as "it" or "she" or "he", but as "we". "We've become well known...We're also increasingly popular..." That's not an accident. There's now over five years of my efforts in JRuby, and I consider it to be as much a part of me as I am a part of it. And so because of that, I have a much deeper, emotional investment in the platform upon which JRuby rests.

I am a Java developer. I am an open-source developer. I am a JRuby developer and a Ruby fan.

I am not a lawyer.

The Facts, According to Me

These are the facts as I see them. You're free to disagree with my interpretation of the world, and I encourage you to do so in the comments, on other forums, over email, or to my face (but buy me a beer first).

On Java

The Java platform is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. And by big, I mean it's everywhere.

There are three mainstream JVMs people know about: JRockit (WebLogic's first and then Oracle's after it acquired them), Hotspot (Which came to Sun through an acquisition and eventually became OpenJDK), and J9 (IBM's own JVM, fully-licensed and with all its shots). Upon those three JVMs lives a gigantic world. If you want the details, there's numerous studies and reports about the use of Java in all manner of business, from the hippest new startups (Twitter recently switched much of their stack to the JVM) to the oldest of the old financial concerns. It's the favored choice for government server applications, the strongest not-quite-completely-Free managed runtime for open-source libraries and applications, and now with Android it's rapidly becoming one of the strongest (if not the strongest) mobile OS platform (even though Android isn't *really* Java, as I'll get into later). You may love or hate Java, but I guarantee it's part of your life in some way or another.

There are a few open-source implementations of Java. The most well-known is OpenJDK, the Hotspot JVM that Sun relicensed under the GPL and set Free into the world. There's also Apache Harmony, whose class libraries form part of Dalvik's (Android's VM) Java-compatibility layer. There's GNU Classpath, a GPL-based implementation of the Java class libraries used for the ahead-of-time Java compiler GCJ. There's JamVM, which leverages Classpath to provide a very light, very minimal, (and very simple) JVM implementation. And there's others of varying qualities and relevance like IKVM (Java for .NET), VMKit (a Java compiler atop LLVM), and so on. OpenJDK is certainly the big daddy, though, and its release as GPL guarantees we'll at least have a solid Java 6 implementation forever.

Java is not an entirely open platform, what with the now-obvious encumbrances of patents and copyrights (not to mention draconian policies toward Java's various specifications, which are often very slow to evolve due to the JCP quagmire). That's not a great state of affairs, and if nothing else you have to recognize that folks at Sun at least tried to release the platform from its shackles by chasing OpenJDK. But the process of "freeing" Java has been pretty rocky; OpenJDK itself took years to gain acceptance from OSS purists, and the choice of the GPL has meant that folks afeared of the GPL's "viral" side still had to look for other options (which is a large part of why Apache Harmony was used as part of the basis for Android). Perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin is that Sun's Java test kit, the gold standard of whether an implementation is "compliant" or not, has never been released in open-source form, ultimately binding the hands of developers who wished to build a fully-compatible open-source Java.

Java is not an entirely closed platform, either. OpenJDK was a huge step in the direction of Freeing Java, and the Java community in general has a very strong OSS ethos. There's no piece of Java software that isn't at least partially based on open-source componenents, and most Java library, framework, or application developers either initially or eventually open-source some or all of their works. Open-source development and the Java platform go hand-in-hand, and without that relationship the platform would not be where it is today. Contrast that to other popular environments like Microsoft's .NET – which has been admirably Freed through open standards, but which has not yet become synonymous with or popular for OSS development – or Apple's various platforms – which aren't based on open-standards *or* open-source, but which have managed to become many OSS developers' environment of choice...for writing or consuming non-Apple open-source software. Among the corporation-controlled runtimes, the Java platform has more OSS in its blood than all others combined...many times more.

Java is not perfect, but it's pretty darn good. Every platform has its warts. The Java platform represents a decade and a half of tradeoffs, and it's impossible in that amount of time to make everyone happy all the time. One of the big contentious items is the addition in Java 5 of parametric polymorphism as a compile-time trick without also adding VM-level support for reifying per-type specializations as .NET can do. But ask most Java developers if they'd rather have nothing at all, and you'll get mixed responses. The sad, crippled version of generics in Java 5 doesn't do everything static-typing purists want, nor does it really extend to runtime at all (making reflective introspection almost impossible), but they do provide some nice surface-level sugar for Java developers. The same can be said of many Java "features" and tradeoffs. JavaEE became an abortively complicated jumble of mistakes (tradeoffs that went bad), but even upstarts that arguably made better decisions initially have themselves graduated into chaos (I believe the Spring framework has now grown even larger than the largest Java EE conglomerate, and Microsoft's periodically reboots their blessed-framework-of-the-week, resulting in an even more disruptive environment than a slow-moving, bulky standard like JavaEE). Designing good software is hard. Designing good *big* software is exponentially harder. Designing good *big* software that pleases everyone is impossible.

Why People Hate Java

Java is second only to Microsoft's platforms for being both wildly successful and almost universally hated by the self-sure software elite. The reasons for this are manifold and complex.

First of all, back in the 90s Java started getting shoved down everyone's throat. Developers were increasingly told to investigate this new platform, since their managers and long-disconnected tech leads kept hearing how great it was from Sun Microsystems, then a big deal in server applications and hardware. So developers that were happily using other environments (many of which exist to this day) often found themselves forced to suck it up and become Java developers. Making matters worse, Java itself was designed to be a fairly limited language...or at least limited in how easily a developer could paint themselves into a corner. Many features those reluctant developers had become used to in other environments were explicitly rejected for Java on the grounds that they added too much complexity, too much confusion, and too little value to trenches developers. So people that were happily doing Perl or C++ or Smalltalk or what have you were suddenly forced into a little J-shaped box and forced to write all those same applications upon Java and the JVM at a time when both were still poorly-suited to those domains. Those folks have had a white-hot hate for anything relating to Java ever since, and many will stop at nothing to see the entire platform ejected into space.

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