Java's future uncertain under Oracle grip

Oracle may control Java more tightly than Sun did

Would the Java community thrive as well under Oracle's control as it did under Sun Microsystems'? Vendors of Java products seem split about the question.

Mark Little, who is Red Hat's chief technologist for middleware and a member of the Java Community Process (JCP) executive committee, raised the concern in an interview that Oracle may handle its stewardship of the Java programming language differently.

Because Oracle tends to be more focused on monetizing its technology than Sun has been, it could try to maintain tighter control over Java, Little warned. By loosely controlling the language and supporting standards, Sun allowed an ecosystem of Java vendors to thrive. If Oracle were to apply tighter control over Java it might be beneficial to Oracle, but could limit the Java middleware industry as a whole.

Offering a more sanguine perspective is Rod Johnson, general manager of VMware's SpringSource division, which offers production-ready versions of the Spring development framework and Tomcat application server, among other Java technologies. "I don't expect Oracle to do anything sinister to Java," Johnson said. "It is not a stupid company."

In either case, Java has become another entry in a growing list of Sun-sponsored technologies, which also numbers OpenOffice and MySQL, whose fates remain uncertain under Oracle rule.

An Oracle spokesman declined to comment on Oracle's plan for the language, though the company has scheduled a webcast for Wednesday, Jan. 27, to detail how Sun's technologies will be folded into the Oracle strategic road map.

Oracle has said Java is an important part of why it wants to acquire Sun. In an FAQ that describes ramifications of the deal for Sun customers, Oracle said that it "plans to not only broaden and accelerate its own investment in the Java platform, but also plans to increase the commitment to the community that helps make Java an ubiquitous, innovative platform."

In 2006, Sun started open sourcing Java, placing it under the Gnu General Public License and allowing the JCP to determine how the language would evolve. It retained ownership of the Java brand, however, as well as veto power within the JCP, Little said. "If Sun did not want something to happen, it would not happen," he said.

In a blog post last November, SAP Chief Technology Officer Vishal Sikkaalso also noted Sun's undue influence over the JCP. SAP is another heavy user of Java for its Netweaver platform. "The JCP is heavily dominated by Sun Microsystems," he wrote.

Little noted that Sun's control did not pose a serious problem to the development of Java, at first anyway. "Sun did a pretty good job as a custodian," he said."They were in some ways a benevolent dictator."

Part of this benign oversight came from the fact that, even as Java grew in popularity, Sun did not have a serious financial stake in the Java middleware market.

"When Sun started off with Java, it defined a [Java 2 Enterprise Edition] stack, but didn't really have an implementation outside the reference implementation. It wasn't competing against the likes of Hewlett-Packard, IBM or BEA Systems," Little said. Only when the company ramped up development of its Glassfish application server did the JCP Standard Edition/Enterprise Edition committee started to feel heat from Sun.

And this undue influence may only grow more pronounced under Oracle, Little suggested. Oracle has a thriving Java middleware business, bolstered by its 2008 acquisition of BEA, which offered the WebLogic Server. Red Hat offers a competing application server and supporting software, called the JBoss Enterprise Application Platform.

"Oracle has a pretty good track record of making a business out of what it acquires," Little said. He speculated that Oracle could make it onerous for Java middleware competitors, by charging for the use of specifications, or rejecting a claim that a product is Java-compliant.

Little admitted that, "There has been no indication from Oracle that any of this is in the cards. It's a worst-case scenario." Thus far, Oracle has been an active contributor in the JCP, and has actually pushed for more openness in the development process.

Of course, because the language is open source, outside developers could just fork Java, leaving Oracle with the official version and concentrating their efforts on outside projects such as OpenJDK, the open-source implementation of the Java platform.

SpringSource's Johnson noted that most Java development these days is done not with the language, but with other software built on top of Java, and by organizations outside of Sun. "The Java community does not have the dependency on Sun that it did five or 10 years ago," Johnson said.

Should Oracle make unpopular decisions, "the community would diverge away," Johnson said. Their work just couldn't be called Java, though, Little said.

But such control would be unlikely, Johnson said, insofar that Oracle has far more to lose financially by clamping down. "Oracle is incredibly dependent on Java" for many of its core programs, Johnson said. "The revenue that Oracle derives from Java being healthy far outweighs any revenue that it could obtain through more aggressive control," Johnson said.

The Java community is so large at this point that any attempts to close off a certain segment of the technology would just be circumnavigated by other approaches, agreed Amit Pandey, CEO of Terracotta.

Terracotta offers software that scales Java applications across multiple servers, and that competes with Oracle's own Coherence line of caching software. The company consulted with the European Commission about the Oracle-Sun acquisition.

"It's always a little nerve-wracking when a company not known as an open-source player comes into an open landscape like Java," Pandey said. "But it's pretty clear that Oracle is not taking Java lightly, especially when so much of its revenue is dependent upon Java."

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