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Paul Ferris: Assimilate! The Case for a GPL'd Java

Nov 08, 2000, 13:54 (26 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Paul Ferris)

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By Paul Ferris

Face it, the GPL has become an almost guaranteed stamp of approval for software to be included in a Linux distribution. The Debian GNU/Linux distribution, for example, held out on inclusion of TrollTech's Qt toolkit, which prevented the KDE desktop from becoming part of their basic installation.

A similar issue is now being discussed by Sun Microsystems, creators of the Java programming language. Sun is contemplating releasing Java under an open source license. This is one of those places where licensing issues do matter. Unfortunately, Sun's James Gosling (creator of Java) still doesn't seem quite convinced that community development is the way to go.

The issue is not one of whether or not Java will become Open Source by definition, it's one of whether or not Java as a standard will become Free Software. It is far more important than it might appear on the surface.

The issue can be sliced many ways. The possibility of Sun losing control of Java (read, an incompatible, competing version being spawned) to a nebulous group of Internet-based people might be one fear. A simple run down of the Linux landscape proves this is not just unlikely -- there's no proof of this kind of harm ever being done.

Possibly it's a economic issue -- Sun doesn't see how it would make any money on Java under the GPL. The latest action by TrollTech seems to suggest that going from an almost-GPL license to the GPL itself isn't all that bad, but who am I to judge? I don't own the property in question (Java) -- it's not my call.

But I can suggest. I can point out that if Sun wants the support of the Linux and Open Source communities, they might just want to consider the benefits of the GPL license -- they might also want to take a good close look at how the GPL helped KDE become a more widely accepted technology because of the actions of TrollTech.

I come to the most interesting point, I believe, by slicing this issue in the direction of trust. Not releasing source code under the GPL has become a red flag to the Linux community that the technology in question isn't set in stone. It almost says that the interests that govern it might not trust us that much. I think a lot of people want to address this issue and remove emotional content, but I have to point out that it is an emotional issue as well, and possibly an important one.

This is not to say it doesn't impact the end demographics -- by GPL'ing Java, Sun will practically ensure that every Linux distribution contains a copy, or can easily ship with a version that is easily included. This in contrast with a new (possibly Java-uninitiated) user finding it, downloading however many tens of megabytes of code needed, and loading it on their system.

Why is this important? Because Java will get glued into the nebulous "Linux Standard" (not to be confused with the one the Linux Standards Base people are working on). When or if Java becomes part of the borg-like entity a good Linux distribution currently consists of, it will morph into something else. Something with far more potential.

Part of what is going on here has to do with Linux as a powerful baseline product. When new technologies get added to the baseline, the number of possibilities for what can be done with that product by the Linux distributors goes up by another exponential. Think of what the inclusion of Python has done, for example, or Tk, or Perl -- each new language, tool, toolkit or package yields another degree of freedom.

Allow me to expand upon this, from my own point of view. We use Linux for the Linux/Open Source Channel web sites at internet.com. We use Apache, Perl, PHP, MySQL and to a much lesser degree, a host of other products. We don't often use anything that isn't published under the GPL or a GPL compatible license to do our important work.

The reasons are many. First, I think it would be almost heretical to publish Linux Today using proprietary software. It would almost be synonymous with "I believe Linux is going places, but I don't think it's up to the task of publishing a simple news site." I don't think I could face the crowd with a straight face. This, you would think, would be fairly easy to understand, and yet at times I've been approached by people who suggest that we should be using Java (JSP technology) and even proprietary web server solutions.

This, in the face of perfectly good server side programming technology -- PHP. To use Java, instead of PHP in this case, would ignore the licensing issues that my target audience holds dear. To use another web server -- and especially a proprietary one -- almost totally ignores the incredible success story of Apache.

I've said it before, Apache is the real poster child of the success of Free Software. To ignore it, and use a proprietary product -- no matter how cool, is in my own non-humble opinion, stupid for a web site like Linux Today.

Some of the members of the audience may take issue with this, pointing out that downloading and installing products isn't that big of a deal. I would counter that with the fact that new users and people who just wish to experiment with something don't always see it that way. On top of that, the Linux distributors themselves can increase the functionality of their distributions when products like these are available as tools.

So, getting back to the issue at hand: Java. I'm in the slow process of learning Java right now myself. I'd like to bank on it, as part of my own hacker toolkit for the future. I have to say that I'm less excited about it if the creators of that technology can't see what benefits they gain by GPL'ing the software. I almost feel that they want to pull a Microsoft on me in the future, to put it in more emotional terms.

I almost question the sincerity of Sun at times. I was impressed to see them finally publish Star Office under the GPL. They talk the talk a lot -- about being open, that is. They don't always walk the walk. When they finally broke down and GPL'd Star Office I thought they might finally be getting it.

The issue is that of providing tools to the base installation of an operating system. By doing so, they provide the developer and end user communities with yet another set of tools to improve the power of an operating system out of the box, and they provide themselves with a platform to raise the awareness (and dependence upon) their products. This, I believe, is a win-win scenario.

The same goes for Sun's Java, as a matter of fact. They can choose not to use the GPL. I can chose a different language. These are balancing forces.

Exclusive Control as a Marketing Bottleneck

It's also a Chinese puzzle of sorts. People don't want to depend upon a technology that doesn't have some kind of guarantee of longevity. By releasing some control on Java, Sun will in some respects be increasing it's power as a platform tool. I don't doubt that it's a delicate balance, and I also don't doubt that it's not easy to decide. But by being the sole entity in control of Java, Sun in effect weakens my perception of the technology from a skeptics' viewpoint. If Sun goes under, Java can potentially go under.

This is yet another dimension, in many. If you've been paying attention all along, you might notice that I've tried to cover the issue of a GPL license for Java from many points of view. The reason is because the Linux and Open Source communities are diverse, and the people involved see the issue from these different directions (and many more, I'm sure).

Whatever the direction Sun chooses, they now have a motivating force on the other side of the fence. Microsoft is now attempting to market a Java-like language (C#). In typical fashion, they show how not to do it as far as open standards are concerned. C# is controlled solely by Microsoft, published only as a language (we don't get the source to it, in other words) and so on.

Microsoft hopes to kill off Java, in other words, using whatever diminishing market clout they have remaining.

To cover the issue from another direction, I asked Rob Levin, an engineer at Transvirtual Technologies, what his opinions were regarding the subject. Transvirtual Technologies makes, among other things, a Java virtual machine (JVM) that runs on many platforms, and is released under the GPL license.

"From the standpoint of the customer and end/user -- the people who use the technology -- releasing Java as an open-source item has no down side. What you get is a truly open standard. A standard that the customers can affect directly. They can have input and make sure it does what they need it to do."

"From the standpoint of Sun, it may not be as big a win because they're playing the zero sum game. They want the flexibility to charge or not charge for a license to their software. That's the flip-side of the coin."

"A closed standard ensures the vendor has a lock on it. The vendor has control over its product, but also the products of any competitor who signs onto that standard. And the very existence of a standard is a big marketing advantage to the vendor who controls it completely."

Levin was clear about the disadvantage Sun will likely face if they don't Open Source Java: "It's a real problem for the growth of Java and the people who use it."

This is in tune with what others ( notably, Nicholas Petreley of the Linux Standards Base ) are saying about Java as it sits today.

But would this be an advantage for Transvirtual? "That's hard to say." Levin explained. "It would give us more source code to work with. It would let us collaborate better with Sun in the standards arena."

"From the customer standpoint, it would mean there's more than one open source vendor for Java available. Choice is always a good thing."

For example, Transvirtuals' Java engine is already available as part of Debian Potato, Sun's JVM could be offered easily as an alternative if it were available under the GPL.

"There are various free alternatives to Java that are out there, including our stuff which is a pretty complete embedded solution. If Sun does not open-source their product, and if they don't help move the standards process along instead of holding it back, we will be less concerned with Java compliance than with the features in Kaffe that our users need.", said Levin.

Clearly, the ball is in Sun's court. Nobody is saying that they need to give away the store here. The consensus seems to be that the language and the source code for the JVM at least should be made available to the community. By continuing to hold to non-free licenses like the one that used to cover Star Office, Sun seems to demonstrate an unwillingness to "Walk the walk" of a modern Open Systems company.

Part of that walk is trusting that the communities that surround Linux and Java would add to the power of the product in the long run, which would enhances Sun's position as a provider of truly open solutions.

What will be the fate of Java without this commitment?

Levin elaborates: "I haven't taken a poll of the other open-source Java related projects, but I suspect that a number of us would end up standardizing our products around something other than Sun's Java implementation. And unlike Sun, Open Source people know how to collaborate on standards."


Paul Ferris is the Director of Technology for the Linux and Open Source Channel at internet.com, and has been covering Linux and Open Source news for over 2 years. He is an editor for Linux Today and a contributing author on Linux Planet.