IBM and Oracle To Collaborate on OpenJDK; Future of Harmony in Doubt

Oracle and IBM Monday announced plans to work together on the OpenJDK project "to improve the rate and pace of innovation" in the Java community.

IBM and Oracle officials told reporters during a conference call today that the collaboration would center on the OpenJDK project and its related Java Development Kit (JDK) and Java Runtime Environment (JRE).

The two companies are collaborating to "accelerate Java innovation through the OpenJDK community," said Hasan Rizvi, senior vice president for Oracle Fusion Middleware and Java. He added that OpenJDK would "now become the premiere location for open source Java development from IBM and Oracle."

OpenJDK is the free, open source implementation of the Java Standard Edition (Java SE) specification. OpenJDK is licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL) with a linking exception. (The GPL linking exception exempts components of the Java class library from the GPL licensing terms.)

"We both have giant businesses built on top of Java," said Oracle's Vice President of Fusion Middleware Adam Messenger, "and there's just a lot of shared interest in making sure that those businesses are based on a vital and rapidly improving platform."

The Java Community Process (JCP), through which standard technical specifications for Java technology are developed, "will continue to be the primary standards body for Java specification work," the companies said in a statement. Both will "work to continue to enhance the JCP." Both companies will support the recently announced OpenJDK roadmap, which accelerates the availability of Java SE across the open source community, they added.

"Part of what we're hoping to do here is to focus our efforts," said Rod Smith, IBM's vice president of emerging technologies. "I think it's a good time to double down on doing the right things to increase innovation."

When asked, "Why now?" Smith added that IBM was approached by Oracle to talk about the future of Java. "It's in our best interest -- meaning the overall Java community -- to think about this with a long-term perspective," he said, "to give customers and developers a good, warm feeling that this is going to continue being a great place to build products in."

On the timing question, Messenger added: "It took us a little while to onboard Java and understand exactly what we wanted to achieve. Now that we're through that part, you'll see us acting fairly decisively."

Initial reactions to the news were largely upbeat. "I think this is a very positive development for the Java platform," said George Reese, chief technology officer at cloud governance provider enStratus Networks and author of Java Database Best Practices. "IBM has played a significant role in the development of the Java platform since the beginning of its existence. At times, IBM has even been a more forceful leader in driving Java forward than Sun. The collaboration should help offset the brain drain that Oracle experienced in the loss of Java talent post-acquisition and provide Java with some clarity of direction."

"On the political side, I think this also helps offset a little bit (and just a little bit) of the goodwill hit Oracle took with the Google site," he added. "It shows some commitment to the Open Source part of Java and involves a known and respected Open Source leader in IBM."

Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, sees the collaboration as good news for Java developers.

"This announcement changes everyone's assumptions about the trajectory of Java and of the collection of companies that are supporting its evolution," he said. "There's been an expectation out there that there would soon be a major fracturing of Java. Up until today, I thought that that was probably going to be the case. But this is definitely good for the cohesion of Java."

One casualty of this collaboration may be Apache Harmony, the Java SE project of the Apache Software Foundation. By backing Oracle, IBM has turned away from that project, which could signal its demise.

Forrester analyst John R. Rymer said that IBM's Harmony decision was not a surprise. "We had expected IBM to insist on Oracle sanctioning a second source of Java SE technology -- namely Apache Harmony," he said. "Harmony has a dim future. It needed massive investment from IBM to be competitive with OpenJDK, and I can’t see how that happens now. IBM will devote its time and energy to OpenJDK."

At the end of the day, this collaboration is about capturing developer mind-share, said IDC's Al Hilwa, and showing the community that Java is still relevant and the players are unified behind it.

"It shows that Oracle is not alone in trying to evolve Java more aggressively," he said. "It's also about the roadmap going forward, which finally begins to show some realistic planning. Java is perceived to be under threat of both stagnation and fragmentation. Lots of new languages and fragments like Android are attracting developers. Here we see the two biggest [supporters of the technology] showing that they get these threats, and since their businesses depend on it and so does the livelihood of millions of developers, they are going to take action to push through some changes in the language. Overall this is a good thing for developers."

Is this announcement a good thing for the future of Java development? Post your thoughts in the comments!

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].