August 15, 2006

Sun, Java, and Open Source

Sun Microsystems held a brief update on its Open Source initiatives for Java yesterday evening, across the street from Moscone Center, where Linux World is taking place this week. The event was very a informal “checkpoint” (Sun’s lexicon) on the progress of the open source process for Java. The company reiterated its commitment to bring Java into the Open Source community in substantial parts during the later part of this year with all of the code being released into the community by the early part of 2007. A consistent message from all of the presenters was the company’s focus on developers and customers, with the traditional tipping of the hat to binary compatibility, and maintaining a single stable standard for Java, and other thoughts consistent with the Copernican company’s long held views. And happily, the presentations were mercifully short (as promised), and the bar, snacks, and executives were then unveiled to the eager masses.

At one level there was not much shocking revealed, but then again, no shock treatments were promised, and Sun seems more or less on course for what it indicated its open source plans are. But for someone who has followed the company for longer that I care to admit, there were some differences in the new reality of Sun that are in sharp contrast to the company of a decade ago. There is considerable irony in the timing and location of this update, across the street from the show that promotes what has become the universal cross platform operating environment, namely Linux. Of course, those long enough in tooth recall very similar aspirations once placed upon Java by its corporate father.

Sun was methodical in its statement of its desire for transparency in what it does, and how Java is ultimately licensed, and has invited comments from the community at large to this end. This is a markedly different approach than it took in the late 1990s where we witnessed Sun attempt to drive its view of a Java standard through the ISO and other standards bodies, in a failed attempt to dictate to the market just how standards are achieved and who would control Java’s. Now, the company reminds us that of its belief, that it was the original open source company by citing its work on BSD UNIX and NFS, while overlooking its many single source focused behaviors of the kill Microsoft or die trying era.

There has been a very public shift in corporate leadership and perhaps the company will undergo a sufficient reinvigoration to be able to take a leading place in the market once again. However, it does cause us to wonder just where the company would be today if it wholeheartedly led the market changing notion of Open Source in the late 20th century with the zeal it proclaims today as opposed to reacting belatedly in the early 21st century. What a different market we might have seen. Sun, the company that so many times successfully reacted in advance of the market to reinvent itself, fell victim to its own success, or what some would paint as arrogance. Nevertheless, in 2006 we see a humbler company taking what in our point of view is much more realistic approach in its drive to win, or in some cases regain, the mindshare of the developer and IT purchasing communities.