Sun fights for Java, but not alone

Enterprise leaders, disruptors wrestle for stake in evolving Java ecosystem

Sun Microsystems has a long history of innovation, and any list of the company's greatest achievements must include the development of Java. But Sun is facing well-publicized financial problems, which have some observers wondering if the company might be carved up into several smaller entities or sold to a rival. For some in the Java community, the uncertainty about Sun's future increases the urgency of long-simmering questions about Sun's role with the Java platform. Is Sun still relevant to Java, and does it wield too much power over the technology?

The Java programming language was released as open source software in 2006 and 2007, eliminating the "potential nightmare scenario" -- in Gartner analyst Mark Driver's words -- of Sun going out of business and giving Java an untimely death. But some Java vendors say Sun still wields too much power over Java technology and is stifling innovation.

"Sun has done a good job in the past as a steward of Java but the future of Java is more than Sun," says Sacha Labourey, CTO of Red Hat's JBoss division. Sun takes the lead on new technical specifications and companies that want to use the Java trademark must pass compatibility tests and pay Sun for a license allowing them to do so, Driver notes.

New Java technology specifications are developed by the Java Community Process, which was founded in 1998 and is intended to foster evolution of the Java platform through collaboration. Labourey, who represents Red Hat on the JCP's executive committee, says the organization has not adapted to today's reality.

"There has been some denial here and Sun has way too much power," Labourey says. As a case in point, he notes an ongoing dispute involving Sun and the Apache Software Foundation, the latter of which accuses Sun of placing intellectual property rights restrictions on a license needed to demonstrate that the Apache Harmony Project is compatible with Java SE.

"Essentially, Sun has the preponderance of the power," says SpringSource CEO Rod Johnson . "If Sun really wants something, it's going to happen, and if Sun really hates it, it's not going to happen."

Labourey argues that cash-flow problems have affected Sun's ability to innovate on top of the Java platform.

"In the first eight years it went fine because Sun had plenty of money," he says. "They were strong innovators and quite frankly they did a good job of stewarding Java. But after that they went through slightly worse times and they had to cut down on innovation."

One of Sun's chief architects says the company is still fully capable of helping to improve the Java platform, though.

"People have been questioning whether Sun is relevant to Java ever since we stopped being the only company that produced Java products," says Danny Coward, who is Sun's chief architect for client software and the company's representative to the JCP executive committee for both the Java standard edition (SE) and enterprise edition (EE). "I think in the EE and SE space we're certainly one of the leading contributors to the future evolution of the platform."

Coward acknowledged concerns about the JCP process, noting that he expects the organization to adopt proposed changes that would bring more openness and transparency to the development of specifications. Changes could include publishing schedules online and making email communication in JCP expert groups a matter of public record.

A more open process could encourage better results, Coward says. "We're humble enough to realize the next big idea in the Java space may not come from a Sun employee and we want to be ready to welcome new ideas and innovations with open arms," he says.

Tim Bray, the director of Web technologies at Sun, used his blog to urge his own company to "let [Java] go already" and "set the JCP free [and] turn it over to the community."

"The JCP is costing Sun opportunities and friends and gaining us very little that I can see," Bray wrote.

Technology blogger Riyad Kalla defends Sun's stewardship of Java, however.

In an email exchange with JavaWorld, Kalla wrote that "Sun has done a hell of a job over the last decade advancing the language while maintaining a good amount of compatibility across each release that programmers seem to discredit, but is likely one of the strongest reasons the Java language was as successful as it has been." Kalla does allow that Sun is not the only vendor with a stake, or future, in Java, though. "There is enough money (Intel, IBM, Red Hat, etc.) betting on Java that if Sun were to collapse tomorrow I'm sure multiple solutions would spin up until one true leader became evident."

While some may still question Sun's relevance to Java, Driver says it's pretty much a moot point.

"Sun owns Java, period. It's kind of a moot point," he says. "They own the trademark. They have a tremendous amount of control."

Driver also says Sun has done a creditable job involving the wider community, both through open sourcing Java and by allowing other vendors input through the JCP.

"Sun stopped being the critical path to success for Java many years ago," Driver says. "If Sun were to be acquired tomorrow, Java would continue through the JCP or open source process."

In the meantime, innovation is happening on several fronts in the Java community. SpringSource, maker of the widely adopted Spring platform, has staked a claim with its mission to take the complexity out of enterprise Java development. Simplicity is needed to maintain Java's competitive edge against such platforms as Microsoft's .NET and Ruby on Rails, Johnson argues.

Early Java products "imposed extensive complexity on developers," Johnson says. "To author a single business object you had to write typically at least three or probably five distinct source files."

SpringSource provides a smaller footprint by stripping out APIs and features that usually aren't needed, Driver says. "It's a lighter weight way to deliver Java with many of the same features as the enterprise edition," he says.

SpringSource, founded in 2004, recently expanded its reach into the Java community by acquiring G2One, which offers training and support for Groovy, an alternate language for the Java platform, and Grails, a Groovy-based Web application framework.

Sun is shifting its business priorities toward open source software, including Java, but Driver says the company has done a poor job competing in Java markets against enterprise middleware vendors such as IBM, Oracle's BEA division, and JBoss.

Sun has been successful with Java on mobile platforms, but otherwise Driver says "One might argue Sun hasn't done the best job in monetizing Java."

Regardless of Sun's struggles, Java will continue to improve based on innovations from startups like SpringSource and old-school companies like IBM, Driver says, noting that "IBM is credited for legitimizing Java in the enterprise." Java's status as open source also bodes well for the future, even if the JCP process were to stagnate, Driver predicts.

"There is an extremely deep ecosystem of open source software around Java," he says. "Anything the JCP doesn't do or doesn't do fast enough, there is generally an open source project [to fill the gap]."

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