Sun lends hand to open-source Java

Sun Microsystems Inc. answered a long-standing call from open-source software developers Tuesday, saying Java fans will be able to submit some changes for the platform under open-source licenses and receive financial support from Sun for their projects.

Sun’s move toward a more open Java was announced by company chairman and chief executive officer Scott McNealy during a keynote address here at the JavaOne conference. Sun teamed with The Apache Software Foundation (ASF), maker of the popular Apache Server, to refine the procedures for open-source modifications of Java.

The changes are designed to address issues that have dogged open-source companies looking to certify their products as Java compatible through the JCP (Java Community Process) that governs Java’s maturation. Companies have been wary of submitting open changes for Java because of licensing issues, confidentiality concerns and the costs associated with running compatibility tests, said Jason Hunter, vice-president of the ASF, joining McNealy on stage.

As a response to some of these concerns, all Sun-led JSRs (Java Specification Requests) for standardizing a feature through the JCP can be submitted under an open-source license. In addition, test kits may also be submitted under the open licenses, Hunter said. Some existing JSRs will also be available for open-source implementations, he said. Sun has submitted more current JSRs than any other vendor.

Sun will also dedicate part of its support staff to helping open-source developers and academic institutions build new features for Java.

“I believe we have just made the Java community tighter as a community and much broader as a community with one move,” McNealy said.

Sun did not say give the specifics of the open source license it will use for Java. Officials however indicated it would not use a license as broad as the General Public License (GPL) used in some open-source projects, which allows developers to freely modify and distribute code as long the changes are made public.

Sun has long been under the watch of developers who were concerned about how much control the company exerts over a technology used by myriad companies. Sun, however, had voiced worries about the fragmentation of Java due to incompatible implementations of the technology from outside parties.

One analyst said Sun’s move closer to the open-source community came after lengthy deliberation.

“Sun has been experimenting with tuning the business model on Java for a long time,” said Jean Bozman, an analyst at IDC in Mountain View, Calif. “They have received feedback that it really needs to be more open source.”

With the move Tuesday, Sun may have assuaged some of the developers’ fears and found a way to tap the talents of the Java community and open-source programmers as a whole.

One company, however, remains unimpressed with Sun’s new stance after fighting with the company in the past over open-source Java projects.

“Who knows where they’re going to go with this,” said Yancy Lind, president and chief executive officer of Lutris Technologies Inc.

“This is far short of what the purist open source community wants. They want a complete open sourcing of Java in J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition), and as far as I can tell Sun has not done that,” he said.

Lutris, in Santa Clara, Calif., had developed an open-source application server called Enhydra and worked with Sun in an attempt to get an enterprise version of that application server certified with the J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) specifications. However, because the JCP prohibited the open sourcing of Java technologies, the two companies never came to an agreement. As a result, Lutris was forced to abandon Enhydra and switch to a proprietary model. It recently began selling the Lutris EAS application server, which borrows some of the technologies from Enhydra, but is not freely available to developers.

What the open-source community wants is for all of the standards that make up the Java language and the Java platforms to be open source, he said.

Still, Sun’s close ties to the Apache Software Foundation on this project lend some credence to the company’s intentions, as the ASF manages many of the open-source world’s most successful projects.

In a press conference after his speech, McNealy highlighted the importance of maintaining XML (Extensible Markup Language) as a standard technology and of not allowing vendors to implement their own versions. As usal, he took a swipe at Microsoft Corp., saying the company’s use of Java needs to be closely monitored.

“This would be a real problem for Sun if Microsoft hijacked XML, it would be a problem for the whole industry,” McNealy said. “Do we have evidence? Just absolutely reliable, consistent behavior from Microsoft since they got started.”

Sun has sued Microsoft in federal court, accusing Microsoft of violating its Java licensing contract with Sun by using a nonstandard version of the technology in its products. Sun charges that Microsoft developed a version of Java that runs on its own Windows operating system but not other platforms. Microsoft has denied any wrongdoing.

(Matt Berger and James Niccolai, in San Francisco, contributed to this report.)