Java Creator Weighs In On Open Source Debate

James Gosling on why he thinks open-sourcing Java remains a tricky issue.

July 1, 2004

4 Min Read
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As Java industry leaders prepare to debate at JavaOne 2004 whether Java's stewardship might be better in the open-source community than with Sun Microsystems, the technology's creator James Gosling weighed in on why he thinks open-sourcing Java remains a tricky issue.

On Thursday at the show, a panel of Java industry experts including Gosling will debate the myriad issues surrounding whether Java should adopt a new, open-source community model rather than remain within the Java Community Process (JCP), which is administrated by Sun including Gosling, a Sun vice president. In addition to Gosling, the panel is slated to include Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford professor and open-source advocate; James Governor, principal analyst and founder of Red Monk; and Rod Smith, IBM fellow and author of the famous Open Letter calling for Sun to open-source Java

Speaking to CRN at Sun's annual Java developer show Tuesday, Gosling cited the ever-popular compatibility issue as a reason Sun has to be careful if it decides to release the Java runtime environment or any of its associated technologies under one of the various open-source licenses.

The challenge is to find "some way we can do something that is in the open-source direction--something would pass the open-source smell test--and yet maintain compatibility," Gosling said.

Currently, Sun makes the Java virtual machine (JVM) and Java 2, Standard Edition (J2SE) technologies required to run Java on desktop clients free to anyone who wants to download the software. There is even a "Get Java Now" banner on the site to expedite the process. However, if companies want to redistribute Java, they have to pass a raft of compatibility tests, for which there is a fee. This has been a longtime point of contention, particularly for companies leveraging J2EE, the Java platform for building enterprise technologies that is the foundation of Java application servers, the engine on which enterprise Java applications are built. While Sun has never publicly unveiled what that fee for the compatibility tests is, J2EE licensees have said the fee is in the six figures, though it varies by licensee.Gosling defended that fee Tuesday, saying, "You essentially have to get a service contract from us ," he said. "Because you're going to need help to run the compatibility tests."

He added that if a valid company or organization wants to redistribute Java and is short on cash and cannot afford the compatibility tests, Sun gives it to them for free, though some smaller J2EE vendors have disputed that claim.

"For everybody that's come to us and said we really want to do this but we can't afford the fee, we've actually just given it to them if they're not complete wackos," Gosling said. "When someone like Apple or IBM or someone comes and said give us this thing for free and by the way for free means we'll need a full-time engineer working for us for a year and that's part of the for-free thing, it's like, no, I don't think so."

Gosling said the community of Java developers values compatibility, which means most Java applications, when written once, can run on any operating system if the right JVM and Java runtime is installed. Even open-source supporters would rather see Java remain under Sun's stewardship than compromise the compatibility of the technology, he said.

"For us a big complicating factor is that when we survey the developer population, one of the things they care about hugely is that things remain interoperable--they can take their Java application, drop it down on a Java system and it just works," Gosling said."There's this huge reliance that these systems are interoperable, they're high quality and tested, and when we go out and do surveys of the community, if open-sourcing meant breaking interoperability because you'd have all kinds of people doing deviant things, the majority of the community would say no."

Gosling said he hopes Thursday's discussion, which will be held during his morning keynote, will be "the start of a debate with the community" about how Java's course will best be steered in the future.

"We've been having this sort of quiet debate," he said, "and the open-source community tends to be pretty loud. For us one of the challenges has been to try to sort out the difference between the loud community and the real community."

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