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The State of Java: Stewardship (Past and Present)

Posted by editor on December 18, 2011 at 12:46 PM PST

Circa 400 A.D. or so, it was hard to believe that such a font of creativity and innovation could have fallen into such a state -- a never-predicted situation where innovation was nearly smothered. Once predominant, it was now under attack from all around, its store of wealth largely dissipated. Indeed, its very survival was questionable.

The resulting loss to Western Civilization was immense when this happened to the Roman Empire. Among the losses: scribes ceased copying documents that preserved the great literary, philosophical, and historical tradition of the Greeks and Latins. As a result, today we have mere scraps of the writings that recorded that great tradition.

How is this relevant? Well, the declines of once-great institutions are often similar, and similar effects can ensue. The Roman Empire in its waning days exemplified the loss of ability by a once-great steward to continue to be a effective steward of its own riches and those it had inherited. These things happen when an institution is forced by historic realities to turn its attention away from creativity and innovation, and toward basic survival. There is little room for effective stewardship of things that are not critical to survival when survival itself is threatened.

Of course, I'm also thinking about Sun Microsystems and its stewardship of Java during its final years of independent existence. Sun wasn't quite the Roman Empire, but there certainly was a time when it looked pretty invulnerable. In the 1990s, Oracle and Sun banded together to rail against the "evil" Microsoft behemoth. But after the dot-com bust, Oracle's and Sun's paths diverged: Oracle found a way to be profitable in a post-dot-com world where it actually turned out that sales and profits couldn't really grow indefinitely at a 30% annual rate (this is what the Nasdaq's late-1990s performance implied must happen); Sun, meanwhile, was not able to adjust to the new reality.

So, Sun's decline began. Paring began. Then bigger cuts. Then more desperate cuts. It ultimately became a situation where anything that didn't directly contribute to the financial bottom line necessarily became lower priority. In this environment, despite the wishes of a great many people, Java innovation suffered. Java didn't add to the top line (income), and the bleeding in the bottom line had to be halted (otherwise bankruptcy loomed). As a result, there were layoffs of a great many people at Sun who were part of Java's creation and innovation over the years. That was Java's "contribution" to helping keep Sun afloat.

Oracle's stewardship

It is indeed a much brighter picture for Java today! Despite the early uncertainty and concerns, and the difficult nine-month delay between the announcement of Oracle's acquisition of Sun and its completion, Java today is clearly "moving forward" again. Java will be returning to a two-year major release cycle. There is a vision and a plan for weaving the former loose threads (JavaFX, ME, embedded, etc.) into a consistent platform that stretches from largest, most robust Java EE code through the core platform down to the micro level -- and this platform will re-assert the "write once, run anywhere" mantra as JavaFX is ported onto Mac and Linux/Unix.

Furthermore, the Java Community Process is being reformed to instill new openness. Java User Groups are joining the JCP and adopting JSRs to ensure that the final specifications reflect the needs and understanding of the developer community.

Who is responsible for this changed situation? Well, lots of people, of course. But, it's also clear that Oracle is the central force behind Java's resurgence. Without their commitment of financial and development resources, much of the larger Java community would likely have abandoned Java technology by now. I'm not saying Java would be "dead" -- I'm just saying that active innovation within the Java ecosphere may well have pretty much have come to a halt by now.

But that's a different world, a history that didn't happen (unlike the Romans ceasing to fund scribes to copy venerable libraries of ancient Greek and Roman works). Instead, Oracle stepped in and has proven itself to be an effective steward thus far. Their commitment to Java is clearly long term. That's a very good thing for Java/JVM developers, and for all the companies that make up the broad Java community. Weblogs

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