Six months after Sun Microsystems Inc. said it was not a matter of if but when it would open source its flagship programming language, the company announced that it would release the Java platform as free software under the GNU General Public Licence V2.

The announcement includes Java Platform Standard Edition (Java SE) and Java Platform Micro Edition (Java ME) as well as Java Platform Enterprise Edition (Java EE), which has been available under the Common Development and Distribution Licence (CDDL) for one year through Project GlassFish. Sun will continue to offer Java software through its commercial licence in addition to GPL v2.

Rich Sands, community marketing manager for Java SE at Sun Microsystems, said GPL v2 will drive innovation behind the Java platform, as the terms of the licence require modifications of the code to be published.

“We believe this combination of offering a commercial licences and an open source licence will provide the kind of choice in the market that will drive more adoption and will drive the Java platform into places it’s never been before,” said Sands.

In its announcement, Sun said it is releasing three parts of Java SE in the Java.net community. These include JavaHotSpot technology, which is the Sun implementation of the Java Virtual Machine (JVM), the Java programming language compiler (javac) and JavaHelp software. Sun will also release a buildable Java SE development kit (JDK) in early 2007.

Sun is also releasing the source code for its Java ME software to the Java.net community, which is currently running on over 1.5 billion handsets worldwide. The source code for Java ME also includes a testing and compatibility kit framework and the foundation for Sun’s Java ME compatibility tests. By year-end, Sun will release additional source code for its advanced operating system phone implementation and the framework for the Java Device Test Suite.

Curtis Gittens, senior research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group, said opening up the Java platform allows Sun to take back control over Java from developers who were creating open source implementations based on the code.

“Because those things were getting more community support, Sun was beginning to slip as being the one that’s giving direction,” said Gittens. “Big companies would still stick with the Java release. If Sun wants to build itself as a grassroots company and if they want to grow Java from the grassroots up, the only way they can do that is control the virtual machine.”

Cross-platform compatibility

Sands said Sun chose to go with the GPL v2 over other Open Source Initiative (OSI)-approved ones because of its alignment with the values of the open source and free software communities.

When selecting a licence, Sands said Sun had two goals in mind – cross-platform compatibility and maximization of adoption.

“By aligning the Java platforms licensing with the GNU operating system and as that operating system proliferates to be able to go where that operating system goes in the marketplace to drive more volume,” said Sands.

The GNU Project, which stands for GNU’s Not Unix, was started in 1984 by Richard Stallman as a Unix-like operating system that is free software. The following year, Stallman established the Free Software Foundation (FSF), which serves to promote the development and use of free software, especially the GNU operating system.

Eben Moglen, general counsel for the FSF and founder and chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center, said Sun’s announcement is one of the key moments in the software industry’s movement away from proprietary software to free software.

“Sun is making a policy decision, which I think is unquestionably real,” said Moglen, who is a professor of law and legal history at Columbia University Law School. “It has profound effects for the industry.”

The fact that Sun’s Java technology runs on over 3.8 billion devices worldwide compounds the impact of Sun’s decision, Moglen said.

“Java is a language crucial to the expression of computer technology from everything from cell phones to handheld appliances to mainframes,” he said. “Sun Microsystems’ decision to put all of its Java technology under a ‘copyleft’ licence means that the copy left commons has had an enormous accession of value and significance.”

Likewise, Sands said Java under the GPL v2 allows customers to have open source infrastructure with the benefits of commercial implementation.

“Java is the No. 1 application platform,” he said. “We believe that it will continue to move forward, and the innovation that will be brought to the platform because of open source will push the platform into more places.”

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