Vendors Launch Effort To Boost Java Tools Interoperability

Sun Microsystems, Oracle, BEA Systems and several other vendors launched the Java Tools Community (JTC), a group aimed at achieving better Java tools interoperability to promote the adoption of the Java development platform.
As expected Sun Microsystems, Oracle, BEA Systems and several other vendors Tuesday formally unveiled the Java Tools Community (JTC), a group aimed at achieving better Java tools interoperability to promote the adoption of the Java development platform.

The group's goal is to work in conjunction with the Java Community Process (JCP), the organization overseen by Sun that drives Java standards, to increase "toolability" among disparate Java tools, said Richard Main, director of Java development environments at SAS, a JTC member.

Main, who acted as the most vocal spokesman of the group on a conference call Tuesday, defined toolability rather loosely as the ability to build development and design tools around specific standards and achieve interoperability between those tools.

Some common tool components the JTC will attempt to build through JCP standards are common object models, common document types and eventually a common build subsystem, or framework on which tools are all built, Main said.

As members described Tuesday, the JTC as it stands will act as a sister organization to the JCP, making recommendations and proposing Java specifications to facilitate how Java tools can interoperate so tools vendors can build software to help developers more efficiently and cost-effectively build Java applications.

However, the JCP has been criticized in the past for slowing the evolution of Java because of its inefficiency at finalizing technology standards before vendors already begin implementing them in existing products. This has resulted in Java vendors supporting different versions of the standard in products out on the market at the same time.

For example, the final specification of J2EE 1.4, the standard for platforms that enable development and deployment of enterprise-scale Java applications, was delayed a year after the JCP initially said it would be finalized. Because vendors such as BEA and IBM knew what the final standard would look like, they had already built some of the standard requirements in 1.4 into their application servers before the final J2EE 1.4 spec was approved.

Observers questioned whether the formation of yet another group to work in conjunction with the JCP would only introduce another process that will confuse vendors and customers further about how Java tools should be built to achieve interoperability. But on Tuesday's call, JTC members insisted the group's formation would help Java become an easier and more cost-effective development platform more quickly.

"One struggle developers have is to keep up with [Java] innovation," said Ted Farrell, chief architect for application development tools at Oracle. "JTC will help make toolability an integral part of [the Java] standards process."

With the toolability aspect built into the standards themselves, vendors will be able to put tools that are interoperable with other platforms on the market sooner, and still innovate on top of those standards to differentiate their products, Farrell said.

Industry experts agree there is a need for a common framework to enable Java tools to interoperate when competing vendors Java software products are being deployed in a large project. Having a common underlying framework for all Java tools has been a challenge to control because there are a host of vendors competing to innovate with their own implementations of Java software.

This has been a hindrance in the Java community's fight against Microsoft to offer tools that are appealing to a large group of developers, observers said. Microsoft, which has nearly exclusive control over how tools are built for Windows and .Net will interoperate with those platforms, has been able to work with ISVs to build more efficient and accessible tools for its development community than Java tools vendors have.

In the past several years, Java tools, though based on the standard Java language and APIs, have become increasingly proprietary, with vendors such as IBM, BEA Systems and Oracle building their tools almost exclusively to support development in their own Java software.

This vendor-specific focus has made it more difficult for Java integrated development environments (IDE) from cross-platform vendors such as Borland Software to interact with these platform-specific tools because they contain components common only to the software platform they support.

IBM, which is not a JTC member, attempted to solve the interoperability problem through Eclipse, a standard IDE and framework that multiple vendors can support through plug-ins that would allow their tools to work together. IBM spearheaded in November 2001 to develop and maintain an open-source Eclipse IDE, and the movement has drummed up significant support since then.

Bob Sutor, IBM's director of WebSphere software, told CRN Monday that IBM is committed to Eclipse but is willing to exchange ideas with the JTC and has "nothing bad to say" about the new group.

JTC members insisted Tuesday that their work should not be seen as competitive to Eclipse, although some observers view the formation of the group as a turf war between Sun and IBM over Java. The JTC's work can be helpful to Eclipse, which can use standards created through the JCP from JTC recommendations to promote a better Eclipse IDE, said SAS's Main.

"Eclipse and [the] Java Tools Community are not exclusive entities," he said. "Eclipse will recognize the value of the JTC itself to better implement tools."

In addition to IBM, another vendor noticeably absent from the group of founding JTC participants--which also includes Compuware, Embarcadero Technologies, Iopsis Software, JetBrains, Quest Software and SAP--is Borland Software, a key player in providing both Java and .Net development tools.

George Paolini, vice president and general manager of Java solutions at Borland, said the company worked with JTC members as the group was forming but declined to be a part of Tuesday's announcement because the JTC's relationship with the JCP has not been clearly defined.

"We prefer to see a more formalized structure between the JTC and the JCP in which the JTC would be able to influence the JCP on various design and tool-related issues," said Paolini, who was part of the Sun team the led the creation of the JCP several years ago. "We'll watch as the group unfolds and continue to work with these guys to get the group along those lines."

A Microsoft executive applauded the formation of the JTC, not hesitating to remind the industry that providing a standard framework for tools interoperability has been the Redmond, Wash.-based vendor's strategy all along.

"We've thought for years that a unified framework lends itself to a virtue that developers regard highly: that tools don't stand in the way of creativity," said Prashant Sridharan, Microsoft's senior product manager for Visual Studio .Net. "This is the approach we take--and have been taking--with Visual Studio for years."

This article appears courtesy of CRN, the newspaper for builders of technology solutions.

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