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Analysis: Does Business Want Open-Source Java?

BEA Systems urges Sun to contribute the Java language as open source code, but businesses might not want that.
A behind-the-scenes debate boiled to the surface Wednesday at JavaOne as Scott Dietzen, chief technology officer at BEA Systems Inc., called on Sun Microsystems to contribute the Java language as open-source code.

Dietzen said such a move would strengthen the hand of the Java community in competing with Microsoft by earning the loyalties of developers.

"We could get more innovation in Java if we were reaching out to open-source communities," Dietzen said. BEA's software, the WebLogic application server, frequently works with open-source code on a Web site, such as Apache, Linux, and scripting languages Perl and PHP.

However, some business users don't favor the open-source move for the trusted, vital programming language. "Sun has done a really good job of being a steward of Java," says Chris Wells, senior consultant at BT Syntegra, a unit of the British telecom company BT plc. He pointed to Sun's Java Community Process, the multi-vendor Java technology building process, as a sign of Java's current openness.

Dietzen's call was daring, even a bit cheeky, considering it came only a day after Sun CEO Scott McNealy insisted from the same stage that Sun invented Java and would continue to own it. McNealy also challenged IBM , which has urged Sun to make Java open source, to donate more of its intellectual property to open source. "Our stewardship is unwavering," McNealy declared Tuesday, adding that IBM suffered from "Java envy" for not having invented it.

The debate would be just another local dispute in the Java community if it weren't for the fact that Java has become vital to critical business applications. (Java programmers are largest single group of programmers, according to Evans Data.) Since Java first appeared in 1995, it has thus far remained free of viruses and has suffered minimal security threats. It spawned a new $2.2 billion market for application servers, including IBM's WebSphere and the application server included in Sun's Java Enterprise System. Java applications built within businesses now represent a $110 billion investment, according to figures cited by Sun president Jonathan Schwartz on Monday.

BEA's call also reinforced one made earlier this year by IBM, a continuously testy partner of Sun's. With both BEA and IBM calling for Java to become open source, Sun may face more defections in its ranks of backers. Then again, the erosion could stop with BEA. There has been no groundswell of support among Java corporate users to make it open-source code, for example.

"I don't think Sun ownership is a bad thing," says Roger Smeds, executive VP of software development at E-net pic.com Inc., a component builder for Java Web applications. He cited compatibility benefits from single owner control.

On the other hand, Sun's string of losing quarters last year prompted some to question the fate of Java if left in the hands of a company that might fail. "Sun isn't really doing that well. It should be open source," says Karthik Jayabalan, computer systems engineer at the University of California's Lawrence Berkeley Lab, who's been programming in Java for three years.

Sun lost $760 million in its last quarter, ending March 28. As if to counter such notions, McNealy emphasized at JavaOne that Sun's server sales are rejuvenating, and the company is returning to fiscal health. He predicted better results as its fourth quarter closes at the end of June.

BEA and IBM differ in how they propose making Java open source. BEA's Dietzen proposes the basic ingredients of the language, known as Java Standard Edition, move to open source. IBM seeks the contribution of Java 2 Enterprise Edition, a more complex package of the language plus sets of interfaces designed to let it to work with many outside resources.

The differences in what the two are saying, along with leaks out of Sun about making its Solaris operating system open source "are creating a tremendous amount of confusion," warns Dana Gardner, a Yankee Group software analyst. All three need to explain "what they're doing and what the benefits are," he said.

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