Industry Watch: What Will Happen to Java?
The recent news that Oracle would acquire Sun touched off quite a storm. Oracle, some said, would not be as benevolent a caretaker of Java as Sun, which put the community ahead of its commercial offerings. Others threatened to boycott the Java Community Process, which led to speculation that the platform might fork. And does that even matter anymore, what with cloud computing and services and mashups and all the other ways people can now tie their applications together?
Yet, at this time of uncertainty, the people who control the platform were mostly silent. Neither Sun nor Oracle are free to make any kind of forward-looking statement—about the business—under rules that govern the acquisition of publicly traded companies. They certainly could discuss the platform and language in a higher-level discussion. And IBM, perhaps the largest implementer of Java technology, could not make anyone available to discuss the future of the platform, despite repeated requests.
I thought of all the developers, admins and business people who rely on the platform to sustain their organizations, and I couldn't help but think how they're being betrayed by the very people who foisted their Java products upon them in the first place. Here it is, a key time in the life of the platform, and users can't get any information. Will the JCP live on? Will Oracle take development of the language and platform in-house? Will IBM continue to play? Will any open-source efforts be supported? We'll just have to wait for answers.
So I reached out to some highly respected industry leaders, people who worked on the platform at previous jobs at Sun and BEA and who now have moved on. Surprisingly, they did not want to go on the record about Java either. I can't imagine why they felt a discussion about the future of Java was too controversial, or sensitive, to engage in.
Thankfully, two guys with great experience and insight into the platform WERE willing to talk about the future of Java: Bill Roth, formerly a vice president at Sun; and Tony de la Lama, who headed up the Java development tools at Borland (before the tools were spun off as CodeGear, before they were bought by Embarcadero). To show how life often comes full-circle, though, de la Lama is now with Embarcadero, running R&D for the tools he helped created more than a decade ago.
Roth is now with GSI Commerce, which runs Java in a heterogeneous IT shop, including Oracle's database, the old BEA (now Oracle) WebLogic app server, and other technology from IBM. GSI is behind more than 80 different e-commerce sites, running on the WebLogic app server and the JRockit JVM, which also was purchased by BEA and is now a part of Oracle's stable.
From his perspective, Roth said Oracle's acquisition of Sun will lead to “an unavoidable forking of Java” and that the deal “is the beginning of the slow, inexorable death of Java.” De la Lama called this “the year the asteroid hit the planet. The sick and infirm won't survive.”
De la Lama pointed out that “the elephants were OK with Sun running Java because they didn't know how to make money off of it. And even with that, there was a lot of wrestling.”
Roth speculated that IBM, with all the resources at its disposal, will come to a conclusion that it can go its own way, whether or not is has Oracle's blessing to call its offering “100% Java.” He recalled that during the creation of Enterprise Java Beans, it took the representatives of Oracle and IBM about eight months to agree on a single aspect of the specification.
Roth said that “write once, run anywhere is less important when you look at the different platforms beneath all these websites. There is a raft of choices available” to run applications on multiple platforms.
De la Lama echoed Roth's comments. “The world has changed in the last 10 years” since Java burst onto the scene, he said. “The Internet barely existed. [Write once, run anywhere] was a great vision before software-as-a-service and cloud computing. It doesn't matter as much today.”
He also speculated that “there's huge worry in IBM. In the early days, it wasn't clear they'd stick with Java. If [forking] is going to happen, it would happen with IBM.”
Roth agreed that there will be lessening compatibility over time. “Sun had a culture of openness and collaboration with its partners and competitors. Oracle has none of that.” He added that he did not think it is Oracle's way to maintain something like the JCP.
That said, Roth said he hopes Oracle and IBM can find a way to keep Java whole and compatible. “We would love it if there remained a single Java standard.”
So would de la Lama, who said that early in Java's life, building tools for the platform was akin to hitting a moving target.
“Life came easier as the rate of change slowed,” he said. “As tool vendors, we have had challenges for sure. But the ability to create applications using new technologies has become fairly easy to do. For tool vendors, the acquisition is a non-event.”
Even if Java does fork, Roth said, the result would not be a disaster. “Java technology is mature. It's been around like 15 years, and it's up to the ninth or 10th full-on release [with Java 7],” he said. “Java is where Unix was 10 years ago. There are just not that many features left to put in it.”
David Rubinstein is editor-in-chief of SD Times, a publication for software development managers published by BZ Media LLC. Reprinted with permission.