- By John K. Waters
- November 13, 2006
I'm beginning to suspect that the real impact of IT on society will be seen by
those who come after us as its power to turn nouns into verbs. To ''xeroxing,'' ''googling,''
and ''tivoing'' now add ''GPL-ing.'' I heard this nascent bit of tech slang no less
than a dozen times today during the Sun
Microsystems press conference, at which the company that created Java
officially announced that it has begun the process of open sourcing (another
noun-verb!) two more flavors of its reference implementations of the Java
Platform (SE and ME).
Sun's source code contribution now represents one of the largest ever offered
under the GNU General Public License, version 2 (GPLv2). The GPL has been around
since the 1980s, and it is the license under which the GNU/Linux operating
system is distributed. Sun is releasing its Java tech under the GPLv2 with the
so-called ''classpath exception,'' a clarification from the Free Software Foundation that users of this code
do not have to open source their own code. The Java Platform Enterprise Edition
(Java EE), already open sourced under the Glassfish Project, will also get a
GPL. But Sun is not abandoning its commercial licenses. This is actually a
dual-licensing scheme, which means that users can still choose to license Java
under existing terms.
We reported on Sun's
plans earlier today, but I could hardly miss what was arguably a
historic event. Sun's CEO Jonathan Schwartz and EVP of Software Rich Green ran the relatively
brief presentation in the main auditorium at Sun's Santa Clara, CA, campus.
Schwartz called Sun's announcement ''a momentous change in the landscape of the
Internet.'' one that will be seen five years from now as ''a fundamental shift''
in the industry's destiny.
''Community is at the center of everything we're doing,'' Schwartz said.
''It's not enough to ship an esoteric piece of technology and hope to make money
off it. That's not our strategy. Our strategy is to drive the network effect, to
drive the community, to drive volume in the marketplace, so that we, along with
our partners—and even some of our competitors—can go out and drive value in the
''The entirety of our business model is predicated on this...,'' he added.
''As we bring more people into the community, even if they're not using Sun's
technology—even if they're not paying Sun—it drives a greater opportunity for
Sun, and for others in the marketplace. It's a rising tide that lifts all the
boats floating on that ocean of opportunity.''
This news received endorsements from some genuine leading
lights of the open-source movement. No less a luminary than Richard ''Let Java
Go'' Stallman, creator of the GPL and founder of the Free Software Foundation,
appeared in a video attaboy during the presentation. So did Eben
Moglen, law professor and General Counsel for the Software Freedom Law Center, and
tech-book baron Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly
Media. Conspicuously absent from the proceedings was Sun Fellow James
Gosling, the true father of the Java programming language. Gosling was
reportedly recovering from minor surgery and could not attend, but he posted a
blog message, saying that he was 'really happy we're finally getting it done.''
I received several emails on today's news. Mike Milinkovich, executive
director of the Eclipse Foundation, sent
me a note in which he observed that one of the most important parts of this
announcement was Sun's decision to embrace what he called ''a permeable,
transparent development process across the company's software engineering
''I believe that is just as important as the licensing decision,''
Milinkovich wrote. ''It seems that the entire software industry is taking the
best practices from true open source licensing and development and using them to
either create new and interesting platforms or to reinvigorate existing ones.
Open source licensing and community-based development are clearly the direction
the industry is moving for broadly adopted platforms.''
Most of the messages I received today about Sun's
decision to GPL its Java tech were more or less positive—but not all. I recieved
a statement from IBM attributed to Rod
Smith, VP of emerging Internet technologies in Big Blue's
software group. Smith penned the much-publicized February 2004 open
letter to Sun, in which he urged the company to open source Java. In today's missive, Smith is
quoted as saying that, though Sun's decision to open source two more of its
Java platforms was a good one, it's choice of license wasn't so hot.
''In general, we are pleased about Sun's announcement that they intend to
open source Java and are very supportive of the move...,'' Smith wrote.
''...Having said that, there already is an important existing open source effort
working with Sun to create a Java compatible implementation of Java SE in the Apache Foundation – namely the Harmony
project. In addition, there have been some very recent announcements that
companies active in the Java ME space will be contributing key Java technologies
to the Apache Foundation to jumpstart Java ME projects.''
IBM began participating in Project Harmony, the Apache Software Foundation's
effort to create a compatible, independent implementation of Java SE under the
Apache License, in July of last year.
Smith continued: ''In light of the Apache projects, we have discussed with
Sun our strong belief that Sun should contribute their Java technologies to
Apache, rather than starting another open source Java project, or at least make
their contributions available under an 'Apache friendly' license to ensure the
open source Java community isn't fragmented and disenfranchised, instead Sun
would be bringing the same benefits of OS Java to this significant and growing
open source community.''
I asked Green about Smith's gripe during the Q&A.
Nonplussed by the above statement, he nonetheless kept his feet. ''Implying that
we're starting another open-source Java project is... a unique
interpretation of today's
announcement,'' he said. ''IBM and Sun have worked closely on the evolution of
the [Java] platform. They have been one of the leading advocates of the GPL,
being one of the largest distributors of Linux. We think the availability of
Java under the GPL will enable projects such as Harmony to bring everything
together under the Java.net community group. Certainly the richness of the
technologies we are releasing today far exceeds any other Java-related project
out there. Regardless of this comment, I think it's more likely that Java.net
and the communities therein will be the aggregation point for these other
fractured programs that have occurred over the past couple of years.''
To those few email correspondents harrumphing and
about-timing this announcement, I suggest keeping in mind that Sun has
just given away a significant hunk of its IP, and that, as RedMonk analyst Michael Coté pointed
out to me, open sourcing a previously closed-source code base turns out to be a
much bigger deal than starting an open-source project from scratch. '[They had
to] decide where and how to host the actual code, choose a licensing scheme,
come up with a governance process that outlines how the community working on the
code will operate, and sort out the legal issues with the existing code base.''
Coté believes that the biggest impact of open sourced Java will simply be a
much broader proliferation of the technology; his hope is that it will draw
''non-Sun project members'' to begin contributing innovations that Sun alone
''wouldn't be able to pull off.''
''Open source is a very real and growing part of the software world now,''
Coté added, ''and companies that embrace an open-source model are well poised to
prosper in the future, where open source will be more often the norm than the
exception. Now is definitely the time to start figuring out how to be an
Interestingly, though not significantly, Sun has also open sourced its
longtime Java mascot, that red-nosed, black-and-white triangle thingie with
arms, Duke. No kidding. You're supposed to be able to find the specs at http://duke.devjava.net, but that URL lead me
nowhere at press time. Sun is, however, keeping its steaming-coffee-cup logo.
You know you live in Silicon Valley when: The leading local
paper (San Jose Mercury
News) carries a full page add announcing that Sun has open sourced its Java
implementations. Seriously. Full page. Big steaming-coffee-cup logo. Duke in the
corner, giving the thumbs up sign. Weird.
John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached
at [email protected].