Sun's Java jive lacks openness

Sun wants the kudos of open source but can't quite go the whole hog. These mixed messages aren't healthy for anyone

The delicate courtship between Java and open source has taken another twist. Old Mother Sun, jealously guarding the honour of her young prodigy, still forbids marriage. Java is of respectable stock, sniffs Sun. Society would shun our dear daughter were she to make an arrangement with this "wild and woolly" family. They're trade, you know. Not the thing. Not the thing at all. Meanwhile, the energetic youngsters try to snatch some time together — and the rest of us can but wonder what sort of family they'd raise, given the chance.

And like any over-protective parent, the reasons Sun advances for protecting the child are neither particularly logical nor much good at masking the real fears. Corporates are "somewhere between disinterested and hostile" to open source, says the company, because it lacks the rigour of proper developmental control and violates expectations of interoperability and compatibility. Without Sun's strict control, it says, Java could fork into multiple incompatible variants and be no good to anyone.

It is perfectly true that companies have concerns over interoperability and compatibility, and that a standard divided against itself will not stand. Open source is vulnerable to these problems — as is proprietary software — but not fatally so. Sun's claims of corporate hostility and uncontrollable Wild West developers do not match the real world, where fully open standards with multiple open implementations are an accepted and vital part of the infrastructure.

And the company's proposition that companies are simultaneously smart enough to be wary of open source and stupid enough to get "into trouble if they get too enthusiastic about making their own versions of J2SE" is almost mystical in its embrace of paradox, as is its stance that it will not "tell them what risks to take" but will deny them the option.

The real worry Sun has is not that an open approach cannot rigorously enforce standardisation, but that it can. The Internet is the primary proof of the power of open. Companies — including Sun — made the decision that there is more potential for profit in creating a large, heterogeneous yet interoperable environments than in grabbing control of essential parts of it.

Is Java a proper part of that environment? It should be; its chances of being useful in the long term are best protected by making it so. Sun itself wants to get the benefits of these ideas by making Java almost open source, but can't bring itself to go the whole hog. This is rightly the company's decision to make. But it does itself and Java no good by dodging the issue in a trail of half-hearted and unconvincing excuses.

The company's long term survival will depend on it wholeheartedly embracing the dynamics that drive innovation and growth. The marriage between Java and open source won't be like losing a daughter. It'll be more like gaining a Sun.