Hewlett-Packard is apparently taking a stand against Sun Microsystems' control of the Java platform by releasing its own version of a Java virtual machine for embedded systems.
HP officially announced this week that its Release 1.0 half-megabyte embedded Java virtual machine is available. The first licensee is Microsoft – the arch-rival of Java owner Sun -- which will use HP's Java virtual machine in its Windows CE operating system.
HP decided to develop its own Java virtual machine (JVM) because of Sun's "excessive" licensing fees for an embedded-systems version of Java, according to an HP executive quoted in the Wall Street Journal. Embedded operating systems are used in small or special-purpose devices, such as personal digital assistants, cellular phones and printers.
The company's goal is not to sell Java software, but to wrest control of Java from Sun and turn it over to the industry, Joe Beyers, general manager of HP's Internet-software business unit, also told the Journal. Sun has vehemently resisted attempts by other companies, most notably Microsoft, to relinquish control of Java, while billing it as an open standard.
Java developers today said that the announcement, which came in the form of a press release that did not offer many details, raised more questions than it answered. A main question is whether or not HP's JVM truly will be Java.
HP seems to have created a "clean-room virtual machine that uses Java the language and not Java the class libraries or any of the Sun binaries," says John Dhabolt, director of advanced technologies at Natural Intelligence, a consulting and development firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that specialises in Java systems.
"It is interesting that they could call it Java," Dhabolt said of the HP announcement. "I'm sure Sun is going to take issue with that."
Dhabolt takes the position that Java is both a programming language and a platform and that it should be viewed as two separate entities, so he is not very worried about possible fragmentation of the Java market.
"I'm sure there's huge concern among a great number of developers that there is going to be more fragmentation in the market," he says, adding that "in another couple of years when everyone stops freaking out about fragmentation we'll see Java the language versus Java the cross platform."
Sun may well be hindering that view because "unfortunately, Sun doesn't see it that way," Dhabolt says.
Rick Ross, president of the Java Lobby, which counts nearly 15,000 Java developers as members, also says that HP's announcement raised many questions. He has called for a team of Java Lobby members to gather information about HP's plans to assess the potential ramifications.
"I think there is no value in jumping the gun," he says.
Ross also is under the impression that "HP does not intend to claim this is Java" in its pure form, but vague wording of the press release makes that unclear.
Officials from HP and the company's outside public-relations firm did not return numerous telephone messages seeking comment.
HP could be creating a "recipe for disaster" by developing its own Java virtual-machine technology for embedded systems, another analyst says.
Analyst Jeff Kinz of IDC, says HP also was involved in the long struggle for unification of the Unix platform, which ultimately led to fragmentation, and that Java may be headed in the same direction.
"HP has demonstrated really good technology capabilities and not so good strategic marketing capabilities when it comes to software," says Kinz, IDC research manager for Java and Internet application development software.
He suggests that this could be an example of one division of HP – Internet software – doing something largely on its own without input from other business units.
It's no surprise that Microsoft is the first licensee announced by HP.
"Microsoft was, of course, never going to jump into the (Sun) camp. The only reason they signed the licensing agreement (with Sun) in the first place was so that they could get control of Java and pollute it," Kinz says.
Sun has filed a lawsuit against Microsoft, contending that the software maker violated terms of its Java licensing agreement. That suit is expected to take months, if not years, to be resolved.
Kinz says only time will tell if other companies are going to become publicly involved in the fight for control of Java, which he called a "compelling" technology because of its multi-platform capabilities.
"It will become the dominant language and there's nothing that Microsoft or HP can do to change that," Kinz predicted, although he also said he believes that Java 10 years from now will be different from the Java of today.
Alan Baratz, head of Sun's Java division, was quoted in the Journal article as saying that HP's announcement is a "publicity stunt" and an attempt to get a better licensing deal with Sun. He also said that HP will have a rough time marketing its own version of Java for embedded systems because vendors will be fearful that the move could further fragment Java.
Whatever happens, Kinz says that Sun should heed concerns over the licensing fees, if indeed customers are complaining those are too high.
"They have to be careful to be a benevolent leader," Kinz says of Sun. "They cannot view the licensing of Java as a cash cow."