In a letter sent earlier this month, Rod Smith, vice president of emerging technology for IBM, said Big Blue was willing to work with Sun on an "independent project to open-source Java."
"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.
Sun on Thursday declined immediate comment. "Sun is not providing further statement at this time," a spokeswoman said.
In the letter to Rob Gingell, chief technology officer for Sun software, Smith said IBM believed that taking Java to the open-source community would benefit the platform and both companies' customers.
"IBM is a strong supporter of the open-source community and we believe that a first class open-source Java implementation would further enhance Java's position in the industry by spurring growth of new applications and encouraging new innovation in the Java platform," Smith wrote.
IBM's offer, however, did not mean it was willing to open source its WebSphere application server, the crown jewels of its software platform.
"We're proposing open sourcing Java, not IBM's Java implementation, which of course would be WebSphere," IBM spokesman Steve Eisenstadt said. "We're talking about the underlying Java virtual machine, class libraries within Java and other foundation technology."
IBM also would want other companies using Java to join in the discussions, Eisenstadt said.
Sun's ownership of Java, a technology that the company created, has caused friction for years between Sun and other companies dependent on the technology for their own products. Standards for the platform used to develop and run business applications is currently set by the Java Community Process, an industry group established by Sun.
The JCP, however, is not as open as proponents say, and "straddles the line between open and proprietary," Ronald Schmelzer, analyst for technology researcher ZapThink LLC, said. Sun still retains ownership of Java, while letting the industry add new technology to the platform.
IBM's offer places Sun in a tough position because its strength in the software industry is closely tied to Java, Schmelzer said.
"You can't talk about Java without talking about Sun," Schmelzer said. "If they give up the stewardship of Java, then they may actually become less and less relevant, because Sun would become just another Java company."
Schmelzer believes the stakes are high for Sun. "If Sun drops the ball on these things, then the bottom might fall out for the company," he said. "What are Sun's real competitive differentiators beyond hardware on the software side?"
While Sun has a large business in selling software infrastructure products, its overall revenue is still dominated by sales of powerful computers for running databases and other business software.
Sun, however, has had trouble in its core market since the dot-com bust. Market researcher Gartner Inc. reported Wednesday that Sun's revenue from servers dropped more than 15 percent last year to $5.5 billion from $6.4 billion in 2002.