The Opensourcing of Java

Sun Microsystems is open-sourcing Java under the GPLv2 license. Naturally this made Richard Stallman very happy who was recently quoted as saying:

It’ll be very good that the Java trap won’t exist any more. It will be a thing of the past.

I have spent the majority of the last seven years working in Java and am currently involved in a tech startup that is using Java to model its business processes. From my perspective Java’s license is rather irrelevant – whether it is JCP or GPL – the cost of implementation to me will remain the same. In other words GPLing it won’t make it more free to me. It was already unrestricted enough for my purposes.

Opensource is important. I have always found great business value in repositories such as Apache’s jakarta, db, ant, etc which has opensource libraries for a huge range of common business problems. Since nearly all development work I have done is server side the differences between licences, such as BSD or GPL, have not been an issue.

Opensource’s main value is in the organisation of production. Open-source is so efficient a production mechanism it reduces the margins in that area of the economy to $0 – effectively wiping out those markets. Browsers are a good example. I can recall paying $40 for Netscape’s browser. Ten years later I have the choice of multiple browsers, both opensource and proprietary, as well as the half-half ones like Apple’s Safari: and none of them dare charge me for the browser software itself.

There was a time when large amounts of money had to be paid for compilers and libraries. That day is long past. Languages, compilers and supporting libraries have become a commodity market. There is now a flood of powerful opensource languages with feature full libraries. Maybe Sun is just catching up to market realities by changing Java to opensource.

I suspect the benefit for majority of Java users will get from opensourcing Java is in the production methodology. That will be a second-order effect which is transparent to the end-user. From my point of view as a developer, I will be watching closely but at this point, I cannot see any changes I will need to take in my approach to Java.

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Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

It’s one of the ironies of life that a culture of complaint is one of the things that keeps things working so well. When I visit certain Asian cities and end up exhausted after a few hours and there’s no parks where one can get respite, I realise that all that fractiousness that we have in Australian cities about people trying to preserve parks and stop development, ends up – you guessed it preserving parks. There’s a lot wrong with the way we manage land development, but the ugly culture of complaint is actually necessary I guess to getting a decent outcome.

I think it’s the same with IP. I spend a fair bit of my time complaining about how IP rules could be quite easily improved. And it’s sad that the case can be so strong (for instance for not increasing IP terms retrospectively and for having IP terms that are – usually – not longer than say 15 years by which time their NPV for the entrepreneur at the time of investing is very low).

All that having been said, the way in which open source has developed shows that the basic structure of IP law works surprisingly well.

Tony Healy
Tony Healy
17 years ago

Cameron, I think you misunderstand the strategies of software companies. Sun’s Java compiler was free long before it was open source, right from its origins in 1995. It was free because Sun, a hardware company, wanted to attract developers to cross platform software development, which would encourage people to buy more Sun computers. So being free had nothing to do with open source.

Similarly Microsoft’s browser, Internet Explorer, has always been free, even though it is closed source. The reason of course is that Microsoft wants to attract users to the platform it charges money for.

Also Microsoft made its compilers very cheap in the early 1990s, when it was trying to attract developers to Windows. From memory they were about $150. By comparison IBM at the time was still stuck in mainframe mode and charged a lot more for OS/2 compilers. The result is history. Developers supported Windows and ignored OS/2, and IBM lost.

Also, it is true that competition from open source has prompted Microsoft to offer cut down versions of its current compiler for free. But fully-equipped enterprise versions retail for about $19,000. So the markets are really much more complicated than to say all compilers are now free.

As to Sun open-sourcing Java now, I don’t think it will make any difference really.

17 years ago

Jacques, That was what I meant about it being ‘free enough’ for distribution purposes with the previous license. We deployed on Red Hat servers and downloading the Sun JVM/JDK was not a big deal in order to deploy the server.

Tony Healy
Tony Healy
17 years ago

Jacques, that’s a fair point, but you could make the same argument for any open source Windows browser too. To run any of those, you also need to buy Windows. This gets back to the point that people choose the platform first, not the browser, but that’s a side issue.

More relevant to this discussion is that Internet Explorer was a separate product in the period 1995 to 2000, and in that period Microsoft provided it for free but it was not open source. Microsoft did that at the time Netscape was charging corporate users a fee for its browser. Microsoft also provided free browsers for Macintosh. Again, that was closed source.

Microsoft and other large computer companies will not hesitate to commoditise markets that help their core businesses. Java is a classic example, and I don’t know why Cameron cites that as something made free by open source. It’s always been free, and was part of Sun’s attempt to build markets for Sun computers.

17 years ago

Tony, I am fully aware that companies seek to increase the value of their core business by commoditising their complement. The point I am making is that opensource’s benefits are in its production method, not the distribution or licence. For me, as a java developer, the sun jvm was free enough. I did not get caught in any ‘trap’ as Stallman seemed to think.

It makes no difference to my development or deployment procedures if java is under its current license or an opensource one. I may get second order effects or benefits through the change in production methodology, but for now it does not affect me.