Sparks may fly at open source debate

The stage is set for some fireworks on the last day of the JavaOne show next week, where Sun Microsystems Inc. has assembled a panel to debate the thorny issue of whether it should release its Java technology under an open source license.

Entitled “The Big Question …,” the panel is scheduled for next Thursday and will feature, among others, Sun engineer and Java creator James Gosling, Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig and IT publisher Tim O’Reilly, according to the JavaOne Web site.

The initial list did not include a representative from IBM Corp., which ignited the current debate in February when Rod Smith, its vice-president for emerging technologies, penned an open letter to Sun encouraging it to make Java open source and offering to help it do so.

On Tuesday, an IBM spokesperson said Smith will take part in the panel after all, having been cleared to do so by IBM. Other participants will include Sun vice-president Rob Gingell, to whom Smith’s letter was addressed; James Governor, principal analyst with Red Monk, and a representative from MLB Advanced Media LP, which runs Major League Baseball’s Web site.

“Numerous individuals and organizations suggest that Java technology adopt a new community and development model. This panel will dive into the tangle of granular technical and legal issues, including the potential tradeoff between technologists’ calls for openness versus the market’s demand for compatibility,” according to a description at the JavaOne site.

Some observers have speculated that Sun will reach a decision on the matter in time for next week’s show, but that seemed unlikely based on comments in an e-mail message from Gosling on Tuesday. The panel will try to address whether and, if so, how Java should be made open source, he wrote.

“There’s an enormously complicated tangle of issues. Most of the folks in the open-source world have a pretty simplistic view of the landscape. When we talk to folks in the broader Java world, the question is far from clear-cut. There’s no chance that we’ll have enough time to cover everything during the session, but we hope to make a start,” he wrote in response to questions.

Some open source advocates have echoed IBM’s call to release the code for Java. The argument in favor is generally that the move would strengthen Java by allowing for more innovation and providing more flexibility for developers.

Sun has said it is open to the idea but wants to study the issue more closely before it decides. “The debate is still going on fast and furious,” Gosling said earlier this month.

Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s president, has said he is concerned that Java might fork into incompatible versions if it were made open source, undermining Java’s “write once, run anywhere” capability. Still, Sun said recently that it plans to release its flagship Solaris operating system under an open source license.

Other Java vendors, including BEA Systems Inc. and Oracle Corp., have stayed largely quiet on the matter, while some developers have expressed confusion or disinterest.

“I suppose I don’t really care if it’s open source or not, what I care is that any implementation must (be) certified to meet a common specification before it can be unleashed on the world,” one developer wrote in a bulletin board posting.

Still, the panel is bound to attract attention given the public wrangling between Sun and IBM.

“This is one of the most important issues around Java, and I think Sun decided to push it front and centre at JavaOne,” said RedMonk’s Governor, who declined to reveal his opinions on the matter before he appears in next week’s panel.

Governor agreed that it’s unlikely Sun will have made a decision in time for the show. “I don’t think they’re in a position to announce anything at the show,” he said.

The decision needs to be made with the other Java vendors and with input from developers, and numerous details have to be ironed out, Governor said.

“When it comes to open source, it’s all about the details — the stewardship, the licensing, the protection of IP (intellectual property) — the devil is all in the details,” he said.

JavaOne, in San Francisco, will run from Monday through Thursday next week.

– With files from Robert McMillan, IDG News Service



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