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Sun's Pledge To Make Java Open Source Leaves Key Questions Unanswered

Sun hasn't said who will manage the code or when it will become open source.

At the opening address of the 11th annual JavaOne user group, new Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz promised to make Java open-source code. "It's not a question of whether, but a question of how," he told an audience of several thousand.

The pledge was repeated in the same words by new Sun Microsystems Executive VP of Software Rich Green. The move represents a resolution to an old issue between Sun and some of its closest Java partners: Is it really necessary for Sun to maintain proprietary ownership of Java?

In the early days of establishing Java in the enterprise, Sun pledged to submit Java to an international standards body, quarreled with one as the deadline fell due to submit a draft, then withdrew from a second. Sun maintained at the time that it was necessary for Sun to retain ownership to prevent Java from fracturing into several different versions. Two years ago, IBM's VP of Emerging Technology, Rod Smith, called on Sun to make Java open-source code, and Sun declined.

If it goes through with its pledge to open-source Java, the possibility of it dividing into competing versions would seem remote, given the large body of Java applications already in existence. Developers would be loath to gravitate to a variant that couldn't guarantee it could run on existing Java application servers, Java virtual machines on clients, and the millions of Java mobile devices.

Neither Green nor Schwartz offered a time frame in which Java would be donated to a working community of Java developers, who would become stewards of the code. After Schwartz pledged Sun's Solaris operating system would become open source, it was over a year before code emerged into the hands of developers. Schwartz and Green also didn't name a possible recipient of Java as open source. One possibility: the Apache Software Foundation, which was an early supporter of Java and launched Java projects to add value to the language's implementation, such as the Tomcat Java applet server used on many Web sites.

"IBM applauds Sun's action to commit to open-sourcing Java. The technology can thrive from collaborative innovation," said Smith in a statement immediately after Schwartz' keynote. Smith went on to complain that Java's pace of innovation for much of its 11-year history "has been limited by the degree of openness Sun was then willing to embrace."

Sun had previously founded the Java Community Process, a consortium of vendors that established an open-source-like process of adding new code to Java. But as the wheels of the JCP turned slowly, new and lightweight Web technologies such as Ajax and Ruby on Rails began to take over some of the space that Java advocates had once seen as their domain.

But Sun won credit with other Java vendors, such as Oracle, BEA Systems, and Motorola, by defending Java against changes imposed in the Java virtual machine running under Windows. Sun charged that Microsoft was seeking to split Java into a cross platform and Windows-specific versions and took it to court on claims of violating its Java license.

Sun and Microsoft settled that case out of court, and Microsoft in 2004 paid Sun $2 billion to resolve all their legal differences. That settlement aided Sun at a time when it was experiencing a series of heavy quarterly losses.

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