Java GPL'd

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 marketplace.''

''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 organization.''

''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 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 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 open-source company.''

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, 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. 

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].