Sun Microsystems has never seemed a particularly enthusiastic supporter of open source – at least, that is what its critics have claimed. True, the systems and software supplier has developed some Linux-based servers and an open source office application suite. But it has never quite been able to shake off the charge that it would be happier if open source quietly disappeared. Then, it could get on with the real business of selling proprietary Unix servers, which once made it so much money.
Sun’s CEO, Scott McNealy, has always dismissed such talk as misinformed. “I croak when the press repeats our competitors’ dribble that we are closed and proprietary,” he said last year.
Now, a new challenge to his open source credentials has emerged. In an open letter to Sun, Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative and the author of seminal open source work The Cathedral and the Bazaar, called on the company to fully open up Java, Sun’s application development environment.
Raymond claims that Sun’s involvement in open source is all one way: Sun often takes open source technology and incorporates it into its own products, he says, but the company is less willing to contribute some of its own technology to the open source movement.
Sun denies this. It claims it has opened up several key parts of Java to open source, including the Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) processing engineTomcat, which it donated to the Apache Foundation, and portions of an XML engine.
All the same, the crux of Raymond’s argument for fully opening up Java has some validity. He claims that, only by doing this, will Sun finally raise adoption levels for the technology that it invented. Java, says Raymond, has never really caught on among desktop developers – in contrast to the positive ‘buzz’ around Microsoft’s Visual Studio product line.
Furthermore, while Java may be widely used at the high end, Sun has failed to capitalise: other developers of J2EE-based application servers, such as IBM, BEA and Oracle, sell more products. More embarrassingly, even the open source J2EE application server, JBoss, is more popular than Sun’s offering.
At first, Sun shrugged off Raymond’s demands. But, as message boards buzzed, Sun executives surprised everyone by agreeing to meet Raymond in person and listen to his ideas.
That encouraged IBM to put its oar in. Rod Smith, IBM’s vice president of emerging Internet technologies, wrote to Rob Gingell, Sun’s chief engineer, and said that IBM was ready to work with Sun on an open-source Java implementation. Sun’s response was even more surprising: it agreed to meet with IBM in the next few weeks to discuss its proposal.
Of course, it is one thing to arrange a few meetings, quite another to agree to open up Java. “The chances that Sun will open source Java, especially since IBM suggested it, are somewhere between slim and none,” says one commentator. That may be the case. But McNealy will have few better chances to finally lance the boil over his open source credentials.