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The Value of an Open Java

Posted by eitan on March 25, 2004 at 9:04 PM PST

I just read on an abbreviated news bulletin regarding a comment by Sun CEO Scott McNealy stating that Java will not be open-sourced any time soon. As I understand it, the main reason behind this decision was We're trying to understand what problem does it solve. That's a valid argument.

First of all, what is meant by an open Java? My interpretation is the open-sourcing of the J2SE libraries (collections, swing, etc..).

The value, then, of open-sourcing the J2SE libraries is that these libraries would quickly become much more robust than they have been up until now. I mean that the quality of these libraries both in terms of performance, number of bugs, and feature completeness would improve. If managed properly, J2SE could see significant improvements quickly.

Any features that developers claim are missing would quickly be contributed as patches to the J2SE codebase. If you subscribe to some of Sun's own forums on Java, you will quickly discover what features developers are screaming for. In many forums the typical case is too few Sun engineers with too many requests made upon them. This is a serious and absolutely artifical bottleneck. There are thousands of willing and able developers who probably would submit patches against J2SE.

A word of caution here is that the virtue of being open-source does not imply a successful project. The project leaders must know how to manage open-source projects. Eric Raymond's famous essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar explains this much better than I could do in this blog entry.

So, if Sun were to open-source the J2SE libraries, two things would happen:

  • Developers would get exactly what they want (a better J2SE faster)
  • Sun would get exactly what it needs to combat Microsoft's .NET

Personally, I don't see .NET competing in the first place since it is a closed technology running only on a closed platform. However, the only area where .NET does compete (quality) and where Sun is in certain ways failing its developer community, is what the open-source community is offering it, at no cost!

Why am I writing this? Reading Eric Raymond's open letter to Sun on the topic of open-sourcing Java, I thought that he'd described the problem eloquently. I discovered that lots of people didn't really get it. Worse yet, Sun does not appear to understand it. In my opinion, this decision could be the most significant business decision this company is facing at the moment, in terms of its fight against .NET or other competing language libraries that developers opt to use.

In closing, my hope is that this small blog entry, swimming in a sea of text and opinions on the matter, might help catalize the understanding that open-sourcing J2SE not only has value but tremendous value, if properly wielded.