Sun Microsystems Inc. is planning to make more of its Java platform available as open source, but Canadian experts say the move could have more to do with marketing than software development.
Sun has made efforts in the last year or two to open-source more of its products. In June 2005, Sun launched its Glassfish project, providing access to portions of Java System Application Server Platform Edition 9 code under the Java Research Licence. In June of this year the company committed more Java to open source and confirmed late Monday that Java Standard Edition and Java Micro Edition (its mobile platform) will receive the open source treatment.
“It’s a natural thing to keep moving through the various editions of the Java platform, releasing them in open source form,” said Jean Elliott, director of developer marketing, in an interview on Tuesday.
The development community has been asking for the move away from proprietary code, and to a large degree it will be up to community to help regulate the company’s open source products, she said.
There have been concerns in the past that the development platform could “fork,” or split into incompatible versions, if it’s open-sourced. But developers place a premium on compatibility, which should help to keep the language in line, she said.
“Sometimes we have to let the market decide,” she said. “That’s a very important consideration for us . . . we’ve heard loud and clear that developers want to write applications that will run in as many as places possible. They care that there’s a compatible platform for them to run those applications on.
“One of the objectives of open-sourcing the Java platform is to accelerate innovation. We will have to cross bridges (like forking) as we come to them, but we do want that innovation as well,” said Elliott.
There continues to be a groundswell of support for open source versions of Java, said senior research analyst Curtis Gittens, at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech. In fact, Sun may have had little choice but to take the open source route.
“People have been moving ahead on making Java runtimes available on their own without Sun’s blessing,” he said. Sun needs to “avoid being left out of the Java conversation when they’re the ones who built the language to begin with.”
There are, however, a few stumbling blocks preventing a true open source version of Java SE. Elements of it are still necessarily comprised of closed code.
“On a code base, there’s about six million lines and 10 years of development. As you can imagine, there are some encumbrances,” said Elliott. The font rasterizer in Java (which renders characters readable on-screen) is one of those encumbrances. Elliott said Sun is re-writing code where possible to make it open source, or will prevail upon the Java development community to come up with its own open source alternatives.
Andrew Dick, director of consultancy and Java development shop The Red Hook Group Inc. in Toronto, said that the move to open source won’t significantly change his approach to using the platform. Elements of Java were already open source and there are already different versions of Java available from companies like IBM and BEA Systems.
“From my point of view, I would see (Sun’s open-sourcing of Java) as more of a marketing thing,” he said. Dick added that an open source Java would allow developers “to have a bit more control over where they’re going to take Java, but I don’t think it has huge ramifications. It’s hard to say.”
Gittens said that Sun Microsystems’s announcements around Java have helped draw more attention to the platform but won’t necessarily help it topple its chief rival .Net, a competing development platform from Microsoft.
Elliott said that Sun has no expectations that “every software developer is suddenly going to decide to write code for the Java development kit” as a result of recent open source announcements, but “I think we are gaining attention from open source communities.”
The first full open source suite of Java SE is anticipated for next year.
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