A new dawn for Java as Sun makes it open source

Putting intellectual property into the hands of the open source community is rapidly becoming accepted as an alternative to killing a product. When CA released the Ingres source code to open source community, it provided a neat way to extend the life span, and importantly for businesses, support for the venerable database software. Does then, the decision by Sun Microsystems to ‘open source’ Java, indicate that the development language is nearing its end? Far from it.

When the popular object-oriented programming language Java was created by James Gosling at Sun in 1991, his objective was simple: create a programme that will perform in the same manner regardless of the underlying platform on which it lies.

The concept of platform independence soon gained popularity; today Java is one of the most widely used languages within business IT. According to analyst group Forrester Research, 40% of developers use it across a variety of purpose-built platforms, such as Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) and Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) for mobile applications, putting it ahead of the Microsoft .Net platform languages of C# (19%) and Visual Basic (27%).

Yet despite its dominance, a number of alternatives have gained ground in recent years – in particular scripting languages Perl and Python, and PHP, a server-side web development language. The reason: all are open source languages that are easier to package alongside the popular open source ‘LAMP’ architecture of Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP.

When Sun ‘open sourced’ Java via the widely-used General Public Licence (GPL) in November 2006, its executives touted the move as a natural progression for the language: Java has effectively been freely available since the mid-1990s, but Sun still controlled the direction of the product. Industry vendors, such as IBM, have long argued that an open source Java would help accelerate greater adoption of Java software.

Whether this move can re-invigorate Java remains to be seen. Laurent Lachal, a senior analyst at IT market watcher Ovum says that open source “will not dramatically change Java, but it will allow a much more open framework for people to add to Java, and to push it into new directions.”

This means that Java can develop independently from the heavyweight J2EE platform and “help developers find ways to move Java towards the more lightweight [platform] implementations that open source offers,” he says.

Open source also gives Java a larger footprint in the Linux operating environment, in particular within the popular Fedora and Debian-derived Linux distributions that don’t presently carry Java. As Simon Phipps, chief open source officer at Sun Microsystems, says: “We felt that we could grow the market by the biggest impulse if we used the GPL to distribute Java.”

The GPL is currently the most popular open source licence, accounting for almost three-quarters of all distributed software This will help grow it even more as it “allows Java to be packaged with software that is also governed by the GPL, such as Linux,” says Lachal.

Lee Biggins

Lee Biggins developed as an entrepreneur selling cold cans of fizzy drinks to fishermen on hot days, to running his own car washing empire as a teenager. This spirit carried through to the developmental...

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