Java May Benefit from IBM-Sun

Monday Mar 30th 2009 by Sean Michael Kerner
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With talk of IBM acquiring Sun Microsystems, the Java community could undergo its most significant change in a decade -- perhaps for the better.

In the beginning (1995), Java was created by Sun Microsystems. Then Sun saw that Java was bigger than just Sun (NASDAQ: JAVA) and opened up the process of building Java with the Java Community Process (JCP) in 1998. Yet now with rumors of IBM acquiring Sun swirling, the Java community could undergo its most significant change in a decade.

There have been questions about Sun's leadership of the JCP for years dating back to at least 2002 and percolating still with the soon to be finalized JavaEE 6 specification as well. With IBM (NYSE: IBM) owning Sun, leadership of the JCP could shift and that would be a change welcomed by members of the executive committee of the JCP as well as Java stakeholders outside of the JCP.

"Sun's inability to invest in the JCP combined with its desire to maintain control is stifling the innovation and investment in Java," Rich Sharples, director of product management at JBoss, told InternetNews.com.

Red Hat is a member of the JCP Executive Committee which oversees the JCP. Sharples notes that what drives many of Red Hat's contributions is the desire to make Java simpler to use for more people while retaining the power of the platform. JBoss contributions to the JCP include EJB 3 (nterprise java beans), Web Beans, Seam Framework and Hibernate.

"All JSR's require a reference implementation which is a huge burden for the spec," Sharples argued. "Other standards bodies don't require reference implementations. (JSR stands for Java Specification Request).

The openness of the JCP is something that JCP executive committee Rod Johnson, CEO of SpringSource also has concerns about.

"The JCP is still less open than we would like," Johnson told InternetNews.com. "However, there have definitely been improvements in the last few years."

SpringSource develops a lightweight framework for Java that runs on Java middleware from a number of vendors including Red Hat JBoss, Oracle and IBM.

Does Sun have too much influence in the JCP?

Red Hat's Sharples noted that early in Java's evolution - it needed control and direction and investment and Sun did a great job.

"In the last 5 or so years as Java has become mainstream and really successful and Sun's control is now limiting its growth," Sharples alleged. SpringSource's Johnson went a step further arguing that in his view Sun does have too much influence in the JCP.

"Broadly speaking, if Sun wants something, it happens; if they don't want it, it doesn't happen," Johnson said.

At least one vendor in the Java system doesn't participate in the JPC at all due to concerns about its organization.

"MuleSource does not have active participation with the JCP," Ross Mason CTO and founder of MuleSource, told InternetNews.com. "While we believe the JCP was set up with good intentions, it has turned into a community that is out of touch with Java and driven by stakeholders with conflicting agendas."

Mason argued that the JCP no longer works on real standards, but rather what he referred to as pseudo-standards. That is standards where the reach is too broad or ones that do not or cannot fully understand the problem domain.

"A standard should be a set of well defined rules that address a well-defined problem, the solution should be discrete, simple and easily understood," Mason stated. "However, there seems to be a propensity to create new standards around pieces of the software stack that will never be standard until we've been through enough cycles to truly understand how the problem is best solved."

Mason added that he didn't think that Sun has managed the JCP well. In his view it's a process that now creates standards that ignores what the Java community really wants or needs.

Next page: Sun's View

Sun's View

Sun however disagrees with the assessments made by others that the JCP is not open.

"Sun remains fully committed to an open, transparent, and democratic JCP, and we support the efforts that are being made to reform the organization in this direction," Jeet Kaul, senior vice president of Java engineering at Sun said in a statement sent to InternetNews.com. "Java's success and ubiquity are a direct result of the collaborative development processes that the JCP embodies and of the hard work and resources that its members have contributed over the years."

Kaul noted that there are 6.5 million Java developers around the world and more than 7 billion devices powered by Java technology. As such, he notes that maintaining compatibility is critical to the continued success of the Java platform.

"The organization is open to all, and now has more than a thousand members, including corporations, individuals, Java User Groups, open source communities, and other non-profit organizations, Kaul stated. "We encourage everyone who is interested in the future of Java to join and to participate in the process."

IBM Sun has its own issues

With a potential acquisition of Sun by IBM in the works, the Java development process could be profoundly impacted. SpringSource's Johnson commented that a possible acquisition of Sun by IBM could potentially help to resolve some long standing issues. Among them is a dispute with the Apache Foundation around intellectual property.

"However, while Sun’s stewardship of the JCP certainly doesn’t keep everyone happy, I think there would be more questions over IBM’s legitimacy as the organization making the rules for Java," Johnson said. "With groups like OASIS, the Eclipse Foundation and the OSGi Alliance becoming more important to enterprise Java, the thought of IBM controlling the JCP might encourage a number of companies to ensure they don't have all their eggs in the JCP basket, accelerating the decline in the relative importance of the JCP to the Java ecosystem."

Overall though, Johnson thinks an IBM acquisition of Sun would be a net positive for Java. In his view, the uncertainty about Sun’s ability to survive in its present form is a mild drag on Java.

Mulesource's Mason argued that IBM has shown itself to be a thought leader in Java. Furthermore, he argued that IBM has the agility or the brand required to get Java adoption moving in a positive direction again.

Red Hat's Sharples declined to comment on the potential of an IBM Sun acquisition because his company has a standard policy not to comment on rumors.

"That said - there's a very real chance that Java could come under the control of another company," Sharples said.

"Should that happen, we can only hope that Java's new guardian sees the value in continuing to grow the Java ecosystem and that they view open source and collaboration as the best way to encourage collaboration and fuel growth."

This article was first published on InternetNews.com.

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