Java Open Source Move Leaves Wiggle Room

Sun hopes to alleviate open source "give back" worries

November 20, 2006

3 Min Read
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With all the hoopla it could muster, Sun Microsystems made Java, its portable programming language and closely held software gem, an open source commodity last week. The highly anticipated move means more technology products based on Java and more street cred for Sun.

Sun pushed Java into the public domain by adopting a version of the General Public License, the same license that covers Linux. Sun's move "requires people to understand the GPL," says Doug Levin, president of Black Duck, a company that inspects code for segments that might be derived from open source forebears, GPL-licensed or otherwise.

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Shot o' joe: Linux developers can inject Java, says Green

The GPL requires that anything added to open source code covered under it--like Linux--be given back to the programming community and published in the public arena. The GPL that applies to Java, however, allows for a "class path exception," which means that an application built on top of the Java Virtual Machine can be excepted from the GPL. That lets developers retain the right to sell their Java-based applications as proprietary products. Before, vendors that built Java products, such as BEA Systems and Oracle, had to shell out for a commercial Java license from Sun, which is still available.

Linux distributors "will soon be able to include the JDK as part of the repositories that are included with Linux," noted Sun executive VP for software Rich Green. That's good news for smartphone and other mobile device makers, which frequently match up Java with the Linux kernel for special features on their devices. Sun claims there are 3.8 billion Java-enabled smart cards and mobile devices.

As for companies that develop applications in-house using Java, they won't have to put their valuable intellectual property into the public domain. Plenty of corporate developers are familiar with Java: To seed the corporate environment, the Java Development Kit and Java Virtual Machine always have been available for free to noncommercial developers.Sun created similar hoopla when it made its Solaris operating system available as an open source product last year. That move has helped drive server sales, according to Sun officials. Java, though, has been something close to an open source product for a while. Java's ongoing development was in the hands of the Java Community Process, a consortium of Sun partners and competitors.


Sun has pursued a tortuous path with Java.

The company promised to submit Java to the International Standards Organization as a programming language standard, then quarreled with OSI and withdrew it. Next, Sun proposed submitting a draft of Java as a standard to ECMA (formerly known as the European Computer Manufacturers Association), then withdrew it, saying it was vital that Sun retain sole rights to Java to prevent incompatibilities.

IBM, an early proponent of Java, applauded the GPL move. But Rod Smith, IBM's VP of emerging Internet technologies, notes that Sun could have contributed code to an open source programming language project already under way--the Apache Software Foundation's Harmony project--"rather than starting another open source Java project." The two will compete for volunteer developers, Smith says.That's OK with Geir Magnusson, chairman of the Harmony project, which has 20 primary developers and had 3,026 posts to its comment forum last month. Code that gets reviewed frequently and commented on is a sign of a healthy open source project. "My original interest was to push Sun to do what it has done," says Magnusson. "The battle is won, and I'm happy."

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