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The Software View Newsletter: Java says, "Open Sesame!

Jan 19, 1999, 14:13 (0 Talkback[s])

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(The following story was contributed by Mark Kuharich and is excerpted from the current issue of the Software View e-newsletter.--lt eds)

by Mark Kuharich

"Sun was way too scared of Microsoft, and as a result they created a contract that didn't help them. Java is in the die-back stage -- it's going into niche markets."

No less a software industry luminary than Linux creator Linus Torvalds spoke the above quote at the Oracle Open World conference on November 11th of the year 1998. Torvalds is the very personification of the open-source software movement. And his quote bespeaks a damning and profound question: Did Sun Microsystems' control of Java prevent the software technology platform from achieving even more success than it already has? Sun is also consistently and notoriously late in releasing timely upgrades to Java.

Open-source is basically software developed by widespread collaborating programmers, using freely distributed source code and the communications facilities of the Internet and the World Wide Web. It is software developed and distributed in an open manner. The Internet is awash in open-source software. There are thousands of open-source projects, each incorporating the work of many developers. Here are some of the most important:

Linux, OpenBSD, the Free Software Foundation's GNU programming tools, Perl, tcl, Python, the Apache web server, the Mosaic Internet web browser, the Samba file and print technology, Sendmail, Mozilla, the B News package for Usenet, Fetchmail, GIMP, patch, CVS, qmail, and BIND.

Open-source software is easily customizable, is more reliable, robust, stable, less expensive and less buggy because source code is available for massive independent peer review. More programmers create software quicker and with lower overhead cost. New software is developed in a tight feedback loop with customer demand, without distortions caused by marketing clout or top-down purchasing decisions. Sharing source code facilitates creativity. And worthy projects need not be orphaned when a programmer moves on. With the source code available, others can step in and take over. Customers are finally granted true choice and competition, and are freed from oppressive software licenses. The ability of open-source to collect and harness the collective IQ of millions of individuals across the Internet is simply amazing. Open-source searches for optimal solutions and lowers the barriers to entry. Unencumbered by commercial concerns, the open-source community focuses on writing the best code possible. Open-source draws from the highest IQ's on the Internet, who compete in a friendly way to have their ideas incorporated into the product. In the open-source world, respect is the only form of currency.

Riding the wave of open-source, companies like Transvirtual Technologies, with its Kaffe virtual machine, and grass-roots organizations like the Hungry programmers, with their Japhar virtual machine, are throwing the open-source gauntlet down at Sun's feet. How will Sun respond?

A related aspect of the open-source movement is free. Well, first of all, the Java Development Kit is freely downloadable. The Java Runtime Environment is freely available to be incorporated into any software product. Sun also supplies to universities, colleges, and primary/secondary schools at no charge, unlimited site licenses for many of Sun's popular software products written in or using the Java software technology platform.

Sun has opened up the source code to its Jini spontaneous networking technology. Sun has also opened up the Java standardization process to non-licensees. Non-Java licensees can help define new Java API's across the spectrum of Java classes. Businesses can use and modify, without charge, the Java source code for commercial software development. Anyone is allowed to make enhancements to the Java source code without turning those enhancements over to Sun; thus, intellectual property rights are maintained. Businesses can modify and freely share compatible source code with other businesses. Sun also gives licensees the right to package Java platform class libraries with virtual machines from other licensees. Sun has also stopped collecting up-front licensing fees from companies that want to use Java. Sun is also allowing companies to make modifications to four base Java class libraries: io, net, lang, and util. Sun has also announced the free licensing and public availability of source code for the award-winning Java WorkShop development environment. The above technologies, PersonalJava, and EmbeddedJava are all covered under an agreement called the SCSL (Sun Community Software License). It is also rumored that Sun is planning on making the source code to its Solaris computer operating environment freely available as open-source.

Sun also announced widespread support for the open-source Linux operating system on its UltraSPARC hardware line. Bill Joy, Sun's Chief Scientist, has said, "Most of the bright people don't work for you - no matter who you are. You need a strategy that allows for innovation occurring elsewhere." Sun has followed the Linux model, made a play for ubiquity, and unleashed innovation within the Java community. By opening up the Java source code, Sun has enabled the next great garbage collection algorithm to possibly emerge from some teenager in Japan or elsewhere around the world.

If anyone questions Sun's commitment to Linux, let me provide the following information. Sun has given a special early access source code license of the Java 2 software technology platform to the Blackdown Java-Linux porting team. Sun has provided two software engineers, who have joined the porting effort and answer technical questions. Sun has provided a JIT (just-in-time compiler) binary to Blackdown that works on Intel's x86 microprocessor instruction set. Sun has provided a JCK (Java Compatibility testing Kit) to test the Java-Linux JDK (Java Development Kit) and to ensure that it passes all of Sun's Java compatibility tests. Sun, via their two software engineers, will be able to incorporate patches and changes back into the source code tree. Sun has also provided SPARC workstations to help the port along.

When I was a young man growing up in the United States, I used to try to catch butterflies in the open meadows with a net. I would fail miserably. By moving Java to an open-source model, Sun can finally now use another 'Net to catch those butterflies in the sky.

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