Java’s gatekeepers: How we set the standards

The standards organization overseeing the evolution of Sun Microsystems’ Java programming language ended a series of meetings on Thursday that could mark the beginning of major changes in the way it governs itself.

This was the first time the Java

Community Process (JCP) has met in Toronto — the meetings were held at Research in Motion’s offices in Mississauga, Ont. — though the multi-vendor group usually convenes in person about three or four times a year. Members of the executive committee, which include Sun, Apache Software Foundation, Borland and Fujitsu, spend much of their time managing Java Specification Requests (JSRs), projects that affect how applications written in the language are developed. The way the executive committee nurtures JSRs from initial proposal to completed spec is a sometimes contentious issue, particularly as the rise of open source software put the nature of the JCP’s stewardship in question at Sun’s recent JavaOne conference in San Francisco.

In a briefing following the conclusion of their meeting, the executive committee said one of the members, Apache vice-president Geir Magnusson, will be responsible for setting up a committee to ensure open source development in Java isn’t impeded by the JCP. The group also committed to reform its processes to become more open and responsive, and less complex. The JCP distinguishes itself by giving itself a version number each time it makes changes, much like a software product. Right now the group, which is about five years old, is at JCP 2.6. The theme of this week’s discussion was to develop what they’re calling “”JCP.Next.””

The JCP has already taken steps to become more transparent with the move to 2.6 last April, said the group’s program management office manager, Aaron Williams. In the past, for example, every proposed JSR would go through two review periods: one before the executive committee, and then one before the public. Now the public gets to see the proposals in the first review. There was also formerly a vote during the first review as to whether a JSR would move forward, but that’s now been pushed back to the second review.

“”This way they get that feedback from the public first, and it makes for a better spec,”” Williams said. “”With the vote in that first review, you’d see people worried about that spectre of the (executive committee) voting them down if they didn’t have a fully baked spec.””

There are have been about 248 JSRs since the JCP was put in place, and about half of them are still active. The group receives proposals for about 40 to 45 new JSRs each year. About a third of the JSRs are in the final stages, but others stagnate or fall by the wayside, which is another area of concern, said executive committee member and Fujitsu director of industry relations Michael DeNicola.

“”We wanted to find out what was happening to those dormant JSRs,”” he said. “”But there was no requirement to report in to the executive committee by the spec leads (those working on the JSRs). Now we have that visibility.””

The JCP can sometimes be a lightning rod for criticism, admitted Onno Kluyt, director of the JCP’s PMO and a Sun executive. The key is to turn that criticism into a process of discovery, so that those with an issue can see that their concerns were taken into account when a specification gets approved. “”The language JSRs tend to strike at the hearts of developers,”” he said. “”Their feedback typically gets fairly detailed, fairly deep.””

There can also be considerable disagreement within the JCP itself, members admitted, in part because it’s made of up competitors who all have their own agenda. “”I like to use the pie analogy — everybody gets together to bake a bigger pie,”” Magnusson said. “”Then we have to figure out how to divide it up and get a better share of the market.””

One of the ways the JCP has managed conflict is to create a culture in which those with a problem must offer a proposal when they put it on the agenda, rather than just complaining, DeNicola said. “”All of us have committed resources to Java. We want Java to succeed,”” he said. “”That’s the common thread among all the members.””

Each year the JCP holds an election for some of the 32 seats on the executive committee, which involve a three-year term. One of the faces at the table might eventually be a longtime Sun rival, Kluyt said. “”We’re exploring what the world will look like after the settlement . . . I could see where it would make sense for Microsoft (to be a part of it),”” he said. “”It would help their products too.””

Williams said one element of JCP.Next will include a revision of the JCP participation agreement, which he said many developers still found difficult to understand.

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