IBM, Sun to meet over open source Java

Representatives from IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. will meet in a week to 10 days time to discuss IBM’s proposal for creating an open source version of Sun’s Java technology, an IBM executive said Thursday.

Sun wants to hear more details about IBM’s proposal, such as which parts of Java IBM would like to see made open source and how such a plan might be carried out, according to Bob Sutor, IBM’s director of WebSphere infrastructure.

“We’ve both asked each other to think about things to bring to the table, such as the scope of what we have in mind and how we might do this,” Sutor said in an interview Thursday.

A Sun spokeswoman declined to comment on any meeting, and it remains unclear how seriously Sun is considering IBM’s proposal.

IBM applied public pressure to Sun earlier this week when Rod Smith, vice-president of emerging technologies with IBM’s software group, penned an open letter to Sun encouraging it to offer an open-source implementation of Java. Such a move would help further proliferate the use of Java, according to IBM, which is one of the technology’s biggest supporters.

“IBM is ready to provide technical resources and code for the open source Java implementation while Sun provides the open source community with Sun materials, including Java specifications, tests and code,” Smith wrote in a letter e-mailed to Rob Gingell, Sun’s chief engineer.

In a meeting with reporters Tuesday, Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s executive vice-president for software, expressed puzzlement over IBM’s proposal, calling the plan “bonky.” The open source Linux operating system has forked into a variety of distributions, and the same fate could befall Java if it were made open source, resulting in incompatibilities, he said.

Sutor rejected that argument.

“I think that’s overstated. Yes, there are different Linux distributions, but there are main distributions, and the kernel tends to be very consistent,” he said. “If you’re doing ‘bonky’ things then the market will reject them very quickly, you have to give the market, and the customers, credit.”

Making Java open source has several benefits, according to Sutor. The technology could be bundled with Linux distributions, creating a compelling open source platform that would help to further boost Java’s standing in the market, he said. Java competes with Microsoft Corp.’s .Net software.

“If you could get every Linux distribution with an official, certified Java implementation where you could count on what it did, what its characteristics were, that would be a very powerful thing,” he said.

Asked who would provide the Linux-Java distribution, Sutor replied: “That’s one of the things we want to talk to Sun about.”

An open source implementation could also benefit from the combined expertise of each Java vendor, Sutor said. Currently, each vendor creates its own Java virtual machine, Java libraries and other Java components, wasting resources, he said.

“IBM does some things better than others, maybe others do some things better than IBM. If we could pool our collective resources and arrive at the best possible common implementation that is widely available, it would mean we could put fewer resources on this,” he said.

The Java Community Process is not an appropriate forum for that, according to Sutor, because “the JCP is for building specifications, and occasionally reference implementations. It is not for building best of breed implementations.”

Once such an implementation is agreed upon, Java vendors such as Sun, IBM, BEA Systems Inc. and Oracle Corp. could compete based on the products they build on top of it, he said, such as Java application servers.

Some analysts have praised IBM’s push to make Java open source, but they have also criticized the company for waging its battle in public. Sutor said IBM released its letter because it wanted people to know that it is encouraging — not forcing — Sun to make Java open source, and that it will help with the project.

Critics have also said that if IBM is committed to making Java open source, it should lead the way by offering an open source version of its WebSphere Java application server. Sutor argued that the comparison is unrealistic since WebSphere is a commercial product. The company has contributed some open source Java code to the community, he said, but “there is a line where you say, below this we will open source; above this we will not open source today.”

IBM is “not being prescriptive” about which parts of Java should be made open source, but has in mind a phased approach starting with lower level components such as the Java virtual machine and the Java runtime environment, Sutor said.

He expressed optimism that IBM will get its way.

“If we thought this had zero possibility of succeeding, we wouldn’t have bothered,” he said.

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