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Should Java Be Open Source?

Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it.

Get ready for a wild ride. At Java One, Sun Microsystems announced that it would release Java under an as-yet-to-be determined open source license. Various parties have demanded it for years, and at some point in the near future, it will happen.

Now what?

I think this was driven by the fact that Sun never had a viable business model for Java. Despite a significant investment in defining, implementing, and evangelizing the platform, it is not clear that Sun realized a net profit. That's a shame, because many other companies that got on the Java bandwagon did. Java may have sold more Sun servers than would have been sold otherwise, but I suspect that it still doesn't cover the company's costs of development.

So Sun needed yet another Java strategy. Open sourcing the platform will no doubt please many in the community. Vendors such as IBM and BEA looking for an edge will no doubt build proprietary extensions that benefit their respective platforms and the users of those platforms. Enthusiasts will feel more comfortable experimenting with extensions to the language, which will no doubt ultimately result in innovations that can be folded back into the official version, wherever that may reside.

There is certainly a down side. Java will likely become less compatible across platforms and implementations. Some vendors will resort to lock-in rather than innovation to hold onto customers.

What does Sun get out of it? That is a good question. It is likely that there is some favorable public relations to be had from such a significant open source gesture. But will it sell more servers? Perhaps, but not enough by itself to make a difference to Sun's future.

Perhaps Sun hopes for a groundswell of support and innovation comparable to what IBM achieved through the Eclipse Foundation. Then it can add value to the product that comes from such an industry collaboration, as IBM did with Rational Application Developer. That could ultimately benefit Sun, but it has to be prepared to invest a great deal, and be patient for results.

And then comes the difficult part. When those results arrive, Sun has to learn how to sell value-add software and services. As a company, it has never demonstrated these skills before. For the sake of a platform and language that so many depend on, I hope it succeeds.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 05/19/2006

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