Since the conclusion of last week's JavaOne event in San Francisco, I've been e-mailing back and forth with Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz about Java and the deathmatch that clearly looms ahead between it and competing cross-platform runtime environments from Adobe and Microsoft (Flash and Silverlight, respectively). Between the relevance of last week's JavaFX announcements to the mobile market (basically, pushing the desktop version of Java down to handsets) and Schwartz's repeated sermons about how the number of people experiencing the Internet through a phone greatly outnumbers those who do so with a PC, it doesn't take a lot of dot-connecting to infer that Sun views the mobile market as the battlefield where this deathmatch will happen. Also relevant to this "dot-connecting" is Sun's announcement of a scripting language designed to make the Java Runtime more accessible to developers of rich internet applications -- the so-called creative developers who usually turn to Adobe's Flash runtime as their default target platform.
If Microsoft's Silverlight, Adobe's Flash (officially, Flash Lite in the mobile space), and Sun's JavaFX end up duking it over the mobile RIA space which they no doubt will, handicapping the outcome means taking stock of assets of each -- something I did in my JavaOne 2007 wrap-up (these are fun to write.... here's the one from 2006 and another from 2005). But in the last round trip of e-mails, Schwartz pointed out how I omitted mention of Java's open source nature as a force that could influence the outcome.
My first reaction was a slap in the forehead. In the context of competing against Adobe and Microsoft, forgetting to mention that Java is open-sourced seems like a major faux pas. After all, look at the havoc that Linux's open source nature has wreaked on Windows and Unix. Both Microsoft and Adobe have an ever-growing portfolio of open or open sourced technologies. The most recent tech from either of the two to go open source was Adobe's Flex. But as fellow blogger Ed Burnette pointed out, developers were probably wishing for more. Like open sourcing Flash too. He compared to Java which isn't totally off-base. On the tool side, it's not exactly cheap to acquire professional grade .Net or Flash development tools. Between Eclipse and NetBeans, the most a Java developer has to shell out is for reference books. On first blush, Java's open source nature could be instrumental in the competition for developer's hearts and minds.
But then again, I wondered (also via e-mail to Schwartz), if the battle royale will be over developers of mobile RIAs, does Java's open source nature really matter? After all, it's no secret that the majority of wireless operators and cell phone manufacturers that have intertwined themselves with Java have done so on commercial terms with Sun (even though they could have elected to take the open source route). In other words, to Sun's benefit, can Java's footprint in the mobile world, get much bigger than it already is because of it's open source nature? The question is really about whether or not the drag effect of an open sourced Java creates a vacuum for commercial wins that accrue to Sun. Regardless of whether a community grows by commercial or open source adoption, the fact would be that the community is still growing. Schwartz characterizes Google as the most valuable Java company in the world. But has that tangibly affected the futures of Sun or Java? In loss-leader fashion, might such community growth be at the expense of competitors like Microsoft and Adobe? Can some of that business be converted into commercial business, either directly or through the sorts of infrastructure that a company like Sun has to cell to Java shops?
And just to connect an interest dot to some other recent news, working the knobs and levers that can grow or shrink a community could have something to do with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's sabre rattling over the number of Microsoft-held patents that Linux violates. There's a lot of speculation over who's door Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith will knock on first? Red Hat seems to be the obvious target. But maybe the long tail of Linux will be what Microsoft goes after first, if it goes after anything. For example, how many appliances out there -- some of them from very big companies -- are running embedded versions of Linux. The Linux community (eg: IBM) can aggregate some of its legal resources to rally around a player like Red Hat and tie a patent infringement suit up in court forever. But there are a bunch of other Linux companies out there that have no knight in white shining armor -- ones that would faint at the site of Brad Smith on their doorsteps. There could be consequences for the overall Linux community if Microsoft goes after them. Consequences that wouldn't be in the best interests of a Linux distributor like Red Hat.
One thing is for sure. Watching this industry is like watching a Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky chess match. There's never a dull moment.