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What will Oracle’s Planned Acquisition of Sun Mean for Java

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Whilst Sun Microsystems and Oracle are hailing Oracle’s purchase of Sun as a huge boost for Java many in the community are not so sure, wondering what kind of control Oracle will seek to exert over the platform.


"Java is one of the computer industry's best-known brands and most widely deployed technologies, and it is the most important software Oracle has ever acquired," the companies said in a joint statement announcing the acquisition. "Oracle Fusion middleware, Oracle's fastest growing business, is built on top of Sun's Java language and software. Oracle can now ensure continued innovation and investment in Java technology for the benefit of customers and the Java community."

Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, agrees:

"Winners on the deal include Java itself in the fullest and broadest sense. Oracle and IBM are the premier Java vendors, and the might of IBM (and its customers and developers) in the market will force Oracle to keep Java open and vibrant, while Oracle’s penchant for control and commercial success will keep Java safe and singular."

It also seems probable that Oracle may resolve some of the long running disputes in the Java community. Mike Milinkovich, the Eclipse Foundation's Executive Director, sees OSGi as one likely winner, telling InfoQ:

"The Oracle acquisition of Sun and Java holds some real promise for resolving one of the simmering disputes in the Java community. Namely, the technical direction of modularity in Java. OSGi has been around for a number of years and has demonstrated its utility as a well architected Java modularity solution in domains ranging from mobile to enterprise middleware. OSGi has been adopted to varying degrees by every major Java licensor, including Oracle.

During the past couple of years, it looked like Sun was on a path of basically reinventing the wheel. With Oracle at the helm there is a chance that the Java platform will be moving forward with OSGi as the standardized model for modularity."

In the enterprise space most commentators seem to agree that Java is reasonably safe with Oracle. Certainly they have been long-term supporters of Java EE and are heavily involved in a number of JSRs including those for JSF and EJB. And even if they don’t keep up investment, argues SpringSource’s Rod Johnson, it may not matter that much:

"...innovation around the Java platform has long been driven by developers, through open source - not mega vendors. Community innovation has transformed productivity and propelled enterprise Java out of the stone age of Sun-architected J2EE."

The short term effects however are likely to be detrimental. Alex Miller expects to see Java 7 delayed:

"Integrating into a new company is a painful process and involves time to formulate strategies, reorganize lines of business and teams, possibly layoffs and almost certainly people leaving of their own accord, switching to new IT, HR, and other systems. All of that means time away from building software and the goals for Java 7 already seemed tight to me. I can only imagine that this slips the timeframe 3-6 months."

There is also real concern about the other parts of the Java ecosystem - browsers, mobile phones, smartcards and other embedded systems. Writing on Ars Technica Paul Ryan makes the point:

"The value of Java to Oracle is almost entirely confined to the server market, so it seems extremely unlikely that Oracle will want to follow through with Sun's efforts to restore Java's relevance in the browser with projects like JavaFX which is aimed squarely at competing with Adobe's deeply entrenched Flash framework.

Similarly, Sun's renewed push for Java on mobile devices could also potentially be viewed by Oracle as superfluous. The trend towards native toolkits and frameworks in the mobile space is making Java ME an anachronism. Java ME is really not competitive with the iPhone experience, which is what all of the mobile platform vendors are trying to imitate right now. Java's only advantage in the mobile environment is consistency between devices, which is really not so good in practice."

Oracle, though, will be keen to see a rapid return on its investment. A widely held myth about Sun’s stewardship of Java is that it failed to make any financial returns from the technology. In fact, ignoring service revenues, Sun booked around $220 million of revenue from Java for fiscal year 2008 and $34m for the first quarter of 2009. Much of this is generated through licensing from enterprise ISVs and device manufacturers, particularly those of mobile handsets who continue to be strong supporters of Java ME despite pressures from the iPhone and Google’s Android. Though more commonly positioned as a competitor to Adobe’s Flash and Microsoft’s Silverlight for PC browsers, JavaFX is at least as important as a way of protecting Java’s dominance of the mobile phone and embedded markets. In view of this, Oracle may well see continued investment here as worthwhile. Moreover, Oracle has never been shy to raise license costs and may use this established revenue stream as a way to rapidly increase the licensing value of the Java platform. In this context it will be fascinating to see what Oracle does with regards the Apache Harmony dispute, since Harmony represents an obvious short-term threat to Java licensing revenues. If Oracle is able to execute Sun's strategy and shift the bulk of license fees from the Java brand to JavaFX, Harmony is much less of an issue for them, and may even be seen as an opportunity. Stephen Colebourne, who has blogged extensively on the subject, remains skeptical:

"...we have a clear indication from December 2007 that Oracle were actively supporting the ASF in the dispute with Sun.


Of course, that may have been a competitive move against Sun. Now that Oracle holds the power, it may choose to use its power very differently."

More problematic still is the rest of Sun’s Java-orientated software stack. Oracle has publicly committed to Eclipse in preference to NetBeans which makes their support of NetBeans more than a little doubtful. GlassFish has been establishing a good reputation amongst developers as an alternative to JBoss and has been growing market share rapidly, but is still a long way behind the Oracle owned WebLogic and may well have investment pulled. It's a similar story for the two portal offerings (BEA Portal Server and Sun Portal Server respectively). In some ways the most intriguing question is what happens to JRocket and Hotspot. Alex Miller makes the point that these two JVM implementations are very different and there is probably room for both of them, but if only one is to survive then, as the reference implementation, Hotspot seems more likely.

Another area of concern is the overall stewardship of Java through the JCP. Alex Miller suspects Oracle will seek to maintain the status quo albeit with themselves now in control:

"IBM and Oracle clearly have staked out the same territory and bet on the same language. Surely Oracle will want to derive all the strategic value they can from the acquisition and subsequent control of the JCP. I can’t imagine that they would be willing to give up that control of the JCP in favor of a more open organization."

Forrester Research’s James Staten goes further. Quoted in BusinessWeek he argues that whilst much of IBM's software is currently based on Java, Oracle could impose restrictions on its rival's use of the language in future products. This seems a little far-fetched however. If Oracle seeks to impose too much control on Java they would run the risk of undermining one of the principle assets they are seeking to acquire. James Gosling would certainly caution against it. Speaking about his own role to Computer Business Review he remarked:

"I try and influence things in the right direction, but there’s such a large community of people that nobody could control it. If anybody tried it would ruin it all."

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