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7 Answers To Key Questions About Java's Move To Open Source

Sun CEO Schwartz isn't offering a lot of details. Here's our take.

Open source, no doubts.

Open source, no doubts.
The Java programming language, a mainstay of business computing, will become open source. "It's not a question of whether, but a question of how," Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz said last week at the JavaOne conference. Schwartz proceeded to explain neither the how, when, or even much why. Here are our own answers to key questions:

Q. After years of resisting, why is Sun making Java open source now?

A. Sun made its core software product, the Solaris operating system, open source and thinks that's working. Customers still buy Solaris and sign up for support. That was Schwartz's main goal when he was chief operating officer of Sun, before becoming CEO in April. Open source Java would attract more developers, a win for the larger Java community in its competition with Microsoft and its .Net environment. It also addresses a tension: Each time Sun asserts ownership of Java, some in the Java community, including IBM, get restless.

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Q. When will it happen?

A. It took Sun five years to make Solaris open source after deciding it was feasible. Java shouldn't take so long. Its origins are more easily tracked, and knowing where code came from eases the path to open source. It will take half as much time as Solaris, maybe a year or two.

Q. Who will manage the open source Java code?

A. Sun will be picky about who watches its baby. Apache Software Foundation, an early host to Java-related open source projects, is a natural home. But Apache members are strict constructionists and won't tolerate corporate meddling. More likely is a variation of the Java Community Process, the multivendor group that shepherds technical additions to Java. Or even JCP itself.

Q. My company develops in Java. How does this change our lives?

A. The big risk is if Java forks--a group takes a version of the language in an incompatible direction. This had been Sun's main argument against open source Java. In reality, few open source projects fork. Linux hasn't. Java's large installed base would be hostile to an incompatible version. More likely, the big change would be positive: rapid advancement in the language from many outside contributions, still subjected to Sun's battery of compatibility tests.

Q. What's the licensing model?

A. You can rule out the General Public License, which effectively bans proprietary additions or combinations. The Mozilla Public License is a step in the direction Sun wants to go. Changes to the source code come back to the community, but some proprietary uses are allowed. Sun's license for open source Solaris allows compiled, executable Solaris code--not source code--to be included with proprietary code in a commercial product. It encourages developers to use Solaris in commercial products.

Q. What took Sun so long to commit to this?

A. Former CEO and now chairman Scott McNealy was wary of the open source approach, even as he envied how Linux won converts in a way he'd hoped Solaris would. But there's no more hand-wringing; Schwartz sees open source as the way forward.

Q. Will open source save Sun?

A. Not by itself. But Sun is showing a more comprehensive plan to use open source as a software strategy. It approaches open source products as a "disruptive" force to get into markets where other players, such as BEA Systems and IBM, are better established. Its NetBeans development tools and Java Application Server, Web Server, and Portal all are open source. For those planning a move to a service-oriented architecture, Sun is putting the pieces in place to help them get there at a lower cost, says Mark Bauhaus, Sun's senior VP of SOA. For Sun, Java always has been more about reputation than cash flow, though it charges considerable fees to certify Java compatibility. During the tech boom, Sun talked Java, then sold servers. It's hoping open source Java can be a new conversation piece.

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