Sun refuses to relinquish control over Java

While Sun Microsystems struggles to maintain control over Java, other companies say they should be allowed to develop their own platforms without interference from Sun. Here are some of the hot issues.

By Dallas Releford

In another effort to block other companies and interests from developing Java platforms that do not meet its strict guidelines, Sun Microsystems on March 1, 2000, declined an offer from ECMA to standardize Java. ECMA, which is a standards organization in Geneva, Switzerland, denounced Sun because the company refused the standardization proposal.

To standardize or not?
ECMA secretary general, Jan van den Beld, stated that Sun’s refusal to participate in the standardization process amounted to an enormous waste of experts’ time and corporate money over the last two years. Van den Beld also blasted Sun for withdrawing not only from ECMA but also from ISO/IECS JTC1 subcommittees. Sun did not comment on the event or on the statements issued by ECMA. ECMA made their latest proposal on February 8, 2000.

Whose interests are being protected?
The only comment that has been made by Sun so far has come from Sun VP George Paolini, who wrote that ECMA’s proposal “does not provide the necessary assurances and safeguards that are needed to protect the interests of Sun, the Java community and ECMA.” ECMA declined to protect Sun's copyright last fall through its standards process, and Sun and ECMA have been in conflict ever since. For those of us who have followed this story, there is little surprise that Sun turned down ECMA's offer.

About this time, Microsoft was allowed by U. S. District Judge Ronald Whyte to form alliances with third parties to add Windows extensions to Java without violating Sun’s copyright. But Whyte also restored an injunction against Microsoft ordering Microsoft to support Sun's Java in Microsoft products.

ECMA proposed developing an ECMA standard on its own after Sun withheld its Java specification from them. ECMA proposed an ECMA standard with a normative reference to Sun's specification, but Paolini declined the offer. Van den Beld disbanded ECMA's Technical Committee 41 until further notice.

Whose Java is it?
All of this power-maneuvering comes about because Sun, as the original developer of Java, wants to protect the standards that it has set for the Java platform. Sun doesn’t want to compromise that standard. Such an attitude is perfectly normal for the creator of any product—especially in the computer field. If no one tries to maintain some order for the Java platform, a plethora of companies and private interests groups would try to create their own little proprietary Java implementations.

We’ve seen this kind of chaos many times before in the computer industry. But with the advent of the Internet, the debate over Java comes with very high stakes.

The Linux example
A good example of what Sun is rightfully trying to accomplish here is illustrated by Linux. Linux was created by one person with a specific purpose in mind and released into the open source community—along with the source code. Standards for Linux have been established and implemented. A license for Linux has been written as have directives for developers; developers are free to use it, improve on it, and do just about anything they want as long as they follow the guidelines as prescribed in the license structure.

But, what happens if one rogue company says, “Okay, we'll write our own version of Linux, one that nobody else can use, modify, or sell without purchasing it from us?” And, this company goes forth and writes a new version of Linux. Pretty soon other companies would follow suit—until you have 50 different versions competing for the same customers.

But if a standard is set and followed, any software that you buy will run on any version of Linux no matter whom you buy it from—at least that’s the concept behind open source. If you don't have standards, you don't have open source. You just have one big mess. The objective here is to produce a product that is free or one that you can easily afford, a product that is robust and stable, and a platform that is truly open source so that developers will be attracted to it.

How will it end?
The very same situation is true with Sun and Java. Sun wants Java to be open source and to follow a prescribed standard. Other companies, such as Microsoft, want to develop their own brand of the product. So, what we would end up with is several flavors of Java that would not run under all environments. For instance, a Microsoft version might work only on Internet Explorer, whereas somebody else's version might not work with Netscape. In some instances, this is already true, although it is not a big problem yet.

Recently, Sun called a meeting of all the companies that have a license with Sun to develop the Java platform to discuss turning over key parts of Java to an advisory committee under Java Community Process 2.0. Attending the second meeting held by Sun were IBM, Apple, BEA Systems, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Novell Symantec, Wind River, Oracle, and Silverstream. Sun has said that there isn't any timetable for an announcement.
Sun is willing to let these companies decide which Java technologies enter the Java Community Process, but only when the specifications are released for review and published. Another condition appears to be when the final drafts are accepted. Sun is anxious to speed the development and adoption of Java, but to do it in such a way that standards are respected and everyone is walking along the same path.
The Microsoft role
In a related Microsoft story that emerged recently, Judge Ronald Whyte denied Microsoft's motion that the company be allowed to independently develop its own version of Java. This decision was versed during the ongoing Sun Microsystems vs. Microsoft Java case in Federal court. This is another setback for Microsoft, which wants to create Java-like technologies that are not contracted from Sun Microsystems, Inc. Sun currently requires Microsoft and all other licensees to pass compatibility tests.

Judge Whyte had ruled in January that products developed for the Java platform by Microsoft must comply with the standards and license requirements set by Sun. However, Microsoft was allowed to use third parties to create Windows extensions to Java without violating Sun’s copyrights. Microsoft does have strong support in the third-party arena with such companies as Rational Software, Transvirtual Technologies, and Tower Technology. Both Sun Microsystems and Microsoft are confident of victory, but Sun even went so far as to say that Microsoft is free to develop and distribute competing technologies other than Java and develop competing compatible implementations of the Java language.

Sun Microsystems hopes to release control over the Java development platform to a panel composed of its licensees—which includes IBM and Apple. Sun hopes that a friendly panel will help maintain Sun’s control over how that platform is developed in the future.

The purpose of the recent meeting was to decide how the panel will be formed and to discuss other issues outlined in the draft of recommended changes for the Java Community Process. Sun's JCP architect, Ken Urguhardt and his boss, George Paolini, vice president of Java Community Development, put the JCP 2.0 draft together. “Our goal with the Java Community Process is to make it as open and participatory as possible,” a Sun spokesperson recently said.

Java and XML
As if all that news wasn't enough, Sun has announced a Java Interface for XML. This interface, termed as a Java Application Programming Interface for eXtensible Markup Language Parsing Optional Package (JAXP), was released for download from their Web site and should be available on other sites as well. Paolini said that JAXP enables enterprise developers to add essential XML functionality to their Java applications. He also noted that Sun will support XML with additional initiatives. JAXP offers core XML functionality, which is used to read, manipulate, and create XML documents through pure Java applets. By using the Java interfaces, developers may use the XML parser of their choice for any specific purpose or switch parsers in the same application.

And the upshot is…
What will happen next is just about anyone's guess. Sun keeps making headlines and staying in the spotlight; the company remains a leading provider of industrial-strength hardware, software, and services that power the Internet. And Sun still has a presence in over 180 countries and counting, with a $14 billion yearly revenue, so the company is more stable than many of its competitors. But will Sun win the battle over Java? For more information please exercise your mouse and click to Sun Microsystems, Inc.

Dallas G. Releford has worked in the computer field as a programmer, MIS manager, PC specialist, and other related positions. He also writes articles, electronic books, and just about anything else that involves the written word. To learn more about Dallas’ business, visit his Web site, The Editor’s Eye.

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