Java.net: the JCP alternative?

When Jason Hunter joined Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Chief Executive Officer Scott McNealy onstage at last year's JavaOne conference in San Francisco, it appeared that Java and the open source community were on the verge of a new era of cooperation.

Hunter, an open source developer who had been leading an effort to standardize the Java XML (Extensible Markup Language) modeling libraries he had written, had discovered incompatibilities between the way Sun created Java standards and the open source Apache license that he used for his libraries . Because these incompatibilities existed between Java and all open source software licenses, they threatened to make it impossible for the Apache Foundation to continue to implement Java standards.

His appearance at McNealy's keynote was to announce that his work had succeeded, and that Sun had agreed to change Java to make it compatible with Apache's license. "I believe we have just made the Java community tighter as a community and much broader as a community with one move," McNealy said.

Hunter was equally enthusiastic. "The events at JavaOne greatly surpassed my expectations. I'm greatly optimistic for the future," he wrote in his blog the next day.

Now, over a year after his appearance at JavaOne, Hunter says he has abandoned his own Java standardization work, and critics are saying that the Java Community Process (JCP) that Sun uses to create Java standards is losing momentum as vendors finding success in defining their own de facto Java standards.

IBM Corp., for example, has reduced its participation in the JCP over the last year, according to Meta Group Inc. Senior Program Director Thomas Murphy. "Their main focus has been on their own thing," he said of IBM. "They've built Eclipse (IBM's open source developer tool) and the rest of their stuff has all been Web services. Definitely IBM has tapered off with respect to the JCP," he said.

When he first began work on standardizing his libraries, called JDOM (Java Document Object Model), Hunter believed that following the JCP seemed like a good way to make his software more popular, he said. As an official Java standard, it would have a greater chance of being included as part of Sun's Java Developer Kit or perhaps as part of the Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) specification, he said. But by the time he had settled the Apache dispute, Hunter was simply too exhausted to go to work on his own standard. Now, a year later, JDOM has become so popular on its own that he no longer sees a compelling reason to follow through with JCP standardization, he said.

Hunter's JDOM is one of a growing list of projects that are becoming popular outside of the Java Community Process. In the last few years, the Struts Web application framework, the Log4J logging tool and the Ant developer tool have all become widely adopted without being based on JCP standards.

"I definitely think that the JCP has broken down for some people," said Tim O'Reilly, president of O'Reilly & Associates Inc. He said that the success of IBM's Eclipse, which uses a graphical interface toolkit called the Standard Widget Toolkit (SWT) that has not been standardized through the JCP, has caused some partners to think twice before contributing code to Java's standards body. "They're just saying, 'we don't necessarily get anything from it,'" O'Reilly said.

This is why observers are saying that Sun's new Java.net open source portal, which the company will unveil at JavaOne this Tuesday, may prove to be a strategically important move as Sun seeks to remain a vital force in the development of Java standards. O'Reilly, whose company is co-developing the network of Web sites in partnership with Sun and collaborative tools maker CollabNet Inc, said that in Java.net, Sun is creating "a space that they don't completely control," in the hope of encouraging other vendors to become more involved.

As the focus shifts to Java.net, however, the JCP may become less important, O'Reilly said. "The community is to some extent routing around the JCP, and this site will to some extent accelerate the process," he explained.

When Java.net goes live on Tuesday, it will host open source implementations of a number of Java APIs (application programming interfaces) , including the JAX-RPC (Java API for XML-Based Remote Procedure Calls), the NetBeans Java integrated development environment project, and parts of the Swing graphical user interface libraries.

Sun clearly hopes that Java.net will be more than a clearing-house for Sun's own open source projects. "I think we're going to see a large growth area for the individual developer contributing new ideas and new code to what sits on top of the base platform," said Ingrid Van Den Hoogen, Sun's senior director of Java and strategic marketing.

"A lot of players in the JCP are looking for ways to reinvigorate it," said Brian Behlendorf, CollabNet's chief technology officer, and a former president of the Apache Software Foundation. "So maybe Java.net is a way for Sun to explore whether the evolution of Java as a language can be a more, organic, open source, evolution," he added.

Sun admits that the JCP is not for everyone. Because of the amount of work JCP participation demands, it is sometimes difficult for individual developers like Jason Hunter to drive standards, said Sun's JCP program office director, Onno Kluyt. "By the nature of what the JCP does, a large number of developers will not be comfortable participating in the JCP," he said.

The most interesting role of Java.net may be as an open testing ground where a large number of developers can participate in the development of technologies that then get proposed as Java standards. The JAIN (Java Advanced Intelligent Network) telecom software community, for example, will be using Java.net in this fashion, said Kluyt.

Java.net may also serve as a kind of foundry for Java projects that are not quite ready for standardization, said Kluyt, but he added that in the long run, he does not expect Java.net to replace the JCP in any significant way, or to cause a decline in the number of proposals -- called Java Specification Requests -- proposed via the JCP . "I would really be surprised if, because of the launch of Java.net, you would see a noticeable change in that number," he said.

Kluyt disagreed with the idea that IBM's participation in the JCP had tapered off. "They have perhaps in the last year not submitted many new JSRs, but I think it's too early to say whether that's a trend," he said.

IBM declined to be interviewed for this article, but the company did release a statement, saying, "The more that Java technology is associated with a coordinated, strong, industry-wide effort rather than a single company, the faster we'll see Java technologies adopted."

While Sun seems intent on retaining control over the core Java specifications -- it has no plans to open source its J2EE implementation on Java.net, for example -- the Meta Group's Murphy said that Sun is doing the right thing in recognizing that much of the interesting work is happening outside of its sphere of influence. "A lot of the innovation is going to happen outside the loop of the JCP," he said. "In many ways, if you look at the evolution of where Java is going, more of it has been driven by Apache than anything else," he added.

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Robert McMillan

IDG News Service

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