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Calls to open up Java

Sun Microsystems has assembled a panel at the JavaOne show next week to debate the thorny issue of whether it should release its Java technology under an open-source licence.

Entitled "The Big Question" the panel includes Sun engineer and Java creator James Gosling, Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig and IT publisher Tim O'Reilly.

The initial list did not include a representative from IBM, which ignited the current debate in February when Rod Smith, its vice-president for emerging technologies, penned an open letter to Sun encouraging it to make Java open source and offering to help it to do so.

An IBM spokeswoman said Smith had been cleared by IBM to take part in the panel. Other participants will include Sun vice-president Rob Gingell, James Governor, principal analyst with Red Monk and a representative from MLB Advanced Media.

"Numerous individuals and organisations suggest that Java technology adopt a new community and development model. This panel will dive into the tangle of granular technical and legal issues, including the potential trade-off between technologists' calls for openness versus the market's demand for compatibility," according to the JavaOne website.

Some observers have speculated that Sun will reach a decision on the matter in time for next week's show, but that seems unlikely. The panel will try to address whether and, if so, how Java should be made open source.

"There's an enormously complicated tangle of issues. Most of the folks in the open-source world have a pretty simplistic view of the landscape. When we talk to folks in the broader Java world, the question is far from clear-cut.

"There's no chance that we'll have enough time to cover everything during the session, but we hope to make a start," said Gosling.

Some open-source advocates have echoed IBM's call to release the code for Java. The argument in favour is generally that the move would strengthen Java by allowing for more innovation and providing more flexibility for developers.

Sun has said it is open to the idea but wants to study the issue more closely before it decides.

Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's president, has said he is concerned that Java might fork into incompatible versions if it were made open source, undermining Java's "write once, run anywhere" capability. Still, Sun said recently that it planned to release its flagship Solaris operating system under an open-source licence.

Other Java suppliers, including BEA Systems and Oracle, have stayed largely quiet on the matter, while some developers have expressed confusion or disinterest.

"I suppose I don't really care if it's open source or not, what I care is that any implementation must [be] certified to meet a common specification before it can be unleashed on the world," one developer wrote in a bulletin board posting.

Still, the panel is bound to attract attention given the public wrangling between Sun and IBM.

"This is one of the most important issues around Java, and I think Sun decided to push it front and centre at JavaOne," said Governor, who declined to reveal his opinions on the matter before he appears in next week's panel.

Governor agreed that it is unlikely Sun will have made a decision in time for the show. The decision needs to be made with the other Java suppliers and with input from developers, and numerous details have to be ironed out, he said.

"When it comes to open source, it's all about the details - the stewardship, the licensing, the protection of intellectual property," he said.

James Niccolai writes for IDG News Service

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