Several rumors have been circulating that claim an esoteric prescience concerning Sun’s intentions toward Java and the free software community. Like shoots of hope that spring from the coldest ground, open source proponents were reported floating the idea that Sun might finally, this time, yes really, make Java open-source.
More credibly, CNET suggests that Sun will alter its licensing on its Java Runtime Environment so that Linux distributions can include it. Currently, a typical Linux user (unless he buys a packaged distribution that has gone through the trouble and expense of getting a JRE license, as Sun’s own Java Desktop System did) has to download and install a JRE himself, should he want Java for use in applets in his web browser or for other purposes. Clearly, it would much more convenient for users (and provide more certainty for developers) if Linux distributions could come with Java built in.
I didn’t take the larger open-sourcing claim seriously for several reasons. First of all, the idea of making Java “open” is complex. Java is a language, not a piece of software. Plenty of free software products exist around Java, so for Sun to make Java “open” would really mean abandoning trademark and other corporate interests in the technology and the name. The Java community has real reasons to worry about this; I stand with Sun in worrying that new developments would either slow down relative to the competing .NET environment from Microsoft, or would fork and fragment.
Second, Sun is blocked by sunspots in this particular area. The company has demonstrated years of ambivalent or openly skeptical attitudes toward free software; significant concessions about its licensing and standardization processes have been won by open source advocates, but they have never gotten Sun to see any good reason to open up Java altogether.
Third, when Sun does get around to talking about “openness,” it uses idiosyncratic definitions that come out far off from what the free software and open source communities think of as free and open. I noted this in a blog last year from Jonathan Schwartz’s talk as the president of Sun at the O’Reilly Open Source convention. Schwartz has now been promoted to CEO, and I don’t think open source has received a promotion alongside him.
OK, so what we’re looking at, credibly, at the upcoming JavaOne conference is a slight licensing change on one component of Java–the runtime environment installed by users for applets and other purposes–that will let Linux distributions include it by default, and save users from fussing and risking failure during installation. The next question is: who benefits?
Well, I do think Sun will benefit from having Java in more places. More people will write in Java.
But who really has a relationship with the Linux community, and all the free software Java projects out there? Red Hat. They announced three years ago a new focus on Apache and Java tools. Their recent acquisition of JBoss was just one natural step along the road toward building a business on Java tools and deployments. The deal was made possible by IBM’s purchase of Gluecode, a JBoss competitor, but I see it as completely in line with everything Red Hat wants to do.
So if Java becomes ubiquitous in Linux distributions, all of us, including Red Hat, can offer thanks to Sun.