Developers weigh in on open-source Java plan

Don't let it split like Linux and Unix was the message

The name of the conference says it all: JavaOne. For developers, the idea that there is one Java is a guarantee of consistency. But when Sun announced that it would open-source Java, developers offered a range of reactions, from applause at the initial announcement to later concerns over whether Sun can keep Java from taking different paths.

Consistency is something David Holberton, a J2EE developer for a large aerospace company, counts on. Today, his applications will run on consistent versions of the Java Virtual Machine (JVM). Open sourcing Java “opens up innovation, but I’m concerned about fragmentation,” he says.

Holberton is “fairly confident” fragmentation won’t happen based on Sun’s efforts so far to ensure a consistent development environment. But what developers who attended the conference don’t yet know is how Sun will accomplish this and keep Java from forking, ie developing different implementations and hurting the underlying idea embodied by the JavaOne name.

“I think the ‘how’ is going to be very important,” says Andrew Smith, a systems architect at Innovative Software Engineering in Coralville, Iowa. He wants to know how Sun will preserve compatibility, how testing will handled once the code is open-sourced and what happens if a variety of distributions emerge as happened with Linux.

There are no answers yet to those questions. Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz gave Richard Green, who heads the company’s software division, the go-ahead for developing a plan to open-source Java, and Green made it clear that the company doesn’t want to put Java on a diverging path. With that in mind, Green stressed that Sun officials will need to devise a plan to prevent that from happening.

What Sun officials insist on, however, is that Java will be open sourced.

Schwartz didn’t attach any caveats to his announcement and believes open source Java will broaden usage by developers as well as create new markets for his struggling company.

Jeff Kottke, a Java engineer at Dairyland Healthcare Solutions, welcomed the idea. “It seems like open source groups are able to put out better code that works faster and cleaner,” he says.

But opinions varied widely. Business application developers weren’t particularly excited about the plan because they write applications to run on JVM and have no interest in working on the underlying code.

Another developer, however, said open-sourcing the code may help application integration where Java is used. Still another said that by making Java open source, it becomes less tied to Sun’s future.

Sun seems particularly interested in getting developers to write for mobile applications, where it already has substantial adoption.

Indeed, Edward Zander, CEO of Motorola, which relies heavily on Java for its mobile platforms, appeared with Schwartz at the conference, urged developers to continue to develop for mobile platform. He echoed the need to make sure that Java “stays unified” for the mobile form.

Chris Fogel, a developer who builds Java-based tools used internally by a mobile wireless company, says open source will lead to more people working on the code and buy-in from a larger community. Fogel and others point out that Java already has a community development process in place.

But it won’t be clear how any open-source move will affect development “until it’s actually out in the community. That’s when you really find out, he says.

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