April 12, 2004

Commentary: Where is Java in the settlement?

Author: Rick Ross

Editor's note: Our colleague, Javalobby founder Rick Ross, has graciously allowed NewsForge to reprint his column from this week's special edition of the Javalobby newsletter. It makes an excellent package with Richard Stallman'sessay on "Free but shackled: The Java trap."

I can neither endorse nor denounce the Sun/Microsoft settlement at this point. Those of us on the outside have no access to the particulars of the settlement and have no way to know whether Sun has sold us out. In truth, precious little of the corporate messaging has specifically referenced Java. It would be nice to paint a positive picture, but experience has proven that we shouldn't be too quick to believe what corporations convey in their highly managed dog-and-pony shows.

Rick Ross

They made a similar set of happy announcements when Microsoft originally signed on as a Java licensee. Look how many years it took before we got to see the bad faith that finally surfaced in the courtroom evidence. We should be smart enough to learn from history that things may not ultimately be as happy as the spin doctors want us to believe they are.

Notably, Sun V.P. Rich Green, with whom I worked closely to prove to Judge Motz in the courtroom that Microsoft had gravely damaged Java and Java developers, is leaving Sun after 14 years there. Rich's resignation was the first significant news to emerge following last Friday's public relations event where Steve Ballmer and Scott McNealy smiled and laughed, shook hands and reminded us all that they have been great personal friends ever since growing up together. There's some doubt about the circumstances of Rich's departure. It was first reported in The Register, which said he was quitting Sun in "disgust." Sun's people got hold of the story and quickly re-spun it to be just "coincidental timing." I don't know which angle, if either, is closer to the truth.

Rich has been a tireless champion of the Java values and vision most of us share in the developer community. In my opinion he was the best friend the developer community had inside Sun, so I am genuinely sad to see him leaving. It makes me respond to the news of the Sun/Microsoft settlement with fear and apprehension. None among us knows what Rich knows, but we can be sure he knows more about the entire matter than we do, and he has decided that now is the right time to be somewhere other than at Sun. Despite the best efforts of Sun's PR team to minimize the event, I cannot see Rich's exit as an unrelated or inconsequential occurrence. Sun's principal Java leader and champion has left the company on the heels of the Microsoft settlement announcement. On the surface, at least, it would appear to speak volumes.

Microsoft is shrewd and successful at using what is tantamount to "petty cash" for the monopolist to make its problems go away. I have noticed people pointing to the investment Microsoft made in Apple some years ago as a model that predicts success for Java here. My recollection of that event has not dimmed, however, and I still regard it as one of the cleverest ways Redmond ever killed multiple birds with one stone. For a mere $150 million, which was subsequently recouped with profit from stock value increases, Microsoft was able to pay Apple to abandon its commitment to Java compatibility, and they also got to keep their weakened competitor alive so that they would have a leg to stand on in their antitrust defense. As an added plus for free market competition, Apple promptly used the money to foreclose innovation in its market segment by shutting down all the Mac clone vendors.

I hope this isn't the model of success people are anticipating from the Java settlement. Historically speaking, other "partnerships" with Microsoft haven't worked out so well, either.

Nonetheless, there's a place in the world for optimism, so we can still hope for the best. I have serious concerns about the consequences of the settlement, however, and I'd very much like to have answers from Sun about what lays ahead. Will most or all of the funds from the settlement be directed back into Java platform research and development? Will Sun now take a more active role in supporting the Java community that has supported it for so long? Will Java become merged into the .NET framework in a way that makes it acceptable to inject Windows platform specificities now that Microsoft has paid Sun's price? What plans were agreed to between Sun and Microsoft, what are the details? Where is Java in this settlement?

It seems improbable that Sun (which simultaneously with the settlement announced layoffs of 3,300 employees and a staggering quarterly loss of $800 million) will be hiring many new engineers to deliver the Swing enhancements, the perfection of shared JVM instances, or the overall performance and reliability improvements that are the highest priorities to Java developers. When you're losing money as fast as Sun is, it's tough to say this infusion from Microsoft is enough to make a meaningful difference. Is the money just delaying the inevitable by six months to a year?

How can Sun show us that it still has the strength, vision and leadership to deserve our support and loyalty? The way they should do it, in my opinion, is by ensuring that a significant portion of the settlement proceeds will be used to benefit Java developers and strengthen independent, standards-based efforts to advance Java.

You and I at Javalobby were much more closely involved in this court case than most, and I can say without doubt that the resounding support we offered as an independent Java developer community was crucial to persuading Judge Motz. The presence of Javalobby's developer perspective in his courtroom was instrumental in establishing the momentum that led to this settlement. Make no mistake, I was never alone in that courtroom, you were right there with me the whole time. Together we helped fight for an outcome that should result in benefits for Java developers as well as for Sun.

Our view of the settlement should depend on what we see Sun doing with the proceeds. What did we fight so hard for? Will Sun show us that our support was well-deserved, and will Sun prove it has the vision to strengthen Java by recognizing and assisting the independent developer community? These are the key questions, and I hope you will join me in watching how things progress before we draw conclusions about this settlement (or was it a purchase?)

Please join me to discuss the settlement and Java at Javalobby.org.

Until next time ...

Washington, D.C.-based Rick Ross is founder and president of Javalobby.

Category:

  • Java
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