Open-Sourcing Java Will Create Incompatibility Risk, Sun Exec Warns

SAN FRANCISCO—While there is no inherent discontinuity with making Java open-source and keeping the technology compatible, the community will have to remain vigilant in this regard, according to a Sun executive.

“I do not think anyone wants to break Java compatibility, but any of the large licensees with the market power to distribute their own version technically could do so, intentionally or unintentionally,” Simon Phipps, chief open-source officer at Sun Microsystems, said in an interview with eWEEK at the annual JavaOne conference here.

As such, keeping the compatibility controls is very important to make sure that no one—not Sun, not IBM, not Nokia—casually or intentionally, causes that shift, he said, adding that breaking compatibility would not necessarily be obvious.

A new feature could be introduced and the underlying technology in that feature could actually not be 100 percent pure Java and compatible.

“You can find a market embracing something because of the market power of the supplier rather than because of the purity of the technology. That is why we, as the Java community, have to remain vigilant as I don’t believe anyone would be dumb enough to make an outright attack,” Phipps said.

The people who care about Java compatibility the most are the members of the JCP (Java Community Process), with the biggest recent growth in the community coming from end-user organizations joining the JCP, he said, adding that the plan is to get even more individual developers on board.

Asked what benefits completely open-sourcing Java and licensing it under an open-source license would bring, Phipps said it would result in the Java platform being considered as a free technology available for use by all.

People confuse forking with incompatibility, he said, noting that something could fork and still be compatible.

Open-sourcing Java: The question is not if, but how. Click here to read more.

“I don’t think there is any inherent discontinuity with making Java open-source and keeping Java compatible. Compatibility must be seen as preventing any party from taking unfair advantage of the marketplace, so that the customer gets the best value proposition, which is lots of competition, lots of richness and innovation,” Phipps said.

Citing OpenOffice as an example, Phipps pointed to the fact that a version of has been built for the Macintosh, known as NeoOffice, and that is a fork of, but it still retains perfect support for the OpenOffice formats and for Microsoft Office.

“There is no difference whatsoever in its compatibility with previous versions, and you can freely exchange documents between NeoOffice and What that fork has done is address a new market while retaining compatibility,” he said.

Asked how long he thought it would take to open-source Java, Phipps said he expects this to be a lot easier and quicker than open-sourcing Solaris, but he also pointed out that not all of the Java code can be open-sourced and there will be some due diligence and re-engineering work necessary.

“But I do believe open-sourcing Java will be a lot easier—and I would hope quicker—than open-sourcing Solaris was, and the plan is for this to happen expeditiously,” he said.

With regard to comments by newly appointed Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz to eWEEK that Ubuntu Linux will soon be running on its Niagara chips, Phipps said this is a “fascinating idea. The code certainly exists, and beyond that I believe the shape of the operating system market is gradually changing,” he said.

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