Will Oracle kill the Java community?

Some worry at this year's JavaOne, but most say 'better Oracle than IBM'

By Robert McMillan

IDG News Service (San Francisco Bureau)

SAN FRANCISCO (06/03/2009) - Will Oracle be good to Java's developers?

That's the question on everyone's mind at this year's JavaOne developer conference, the last show before Oracle's planned US$7.4 billion buyout of Java's creator, Sun Microsystems. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison made a surprise appearance at the show's opening keynote Tuesday and tried to assuage developer concerns. While he implied that there would be some changes, he said, essentially, that it will be business as usual for Java when the acquisition is concluded.

But Oracle is no Sun. Sun has long struggled to keep its diverse community of developers happy, creating a burdensome bureaucracy to manage the development of Java standards and gradually releasing key components of the platform under an open-source license. While Sun has made some money from Java licenses, it has missed out on big opportunities to sell lucrative Java development tools and middleware servers.

Sun remains, at its heart, a hardware company; Oracle sells software.

To some extent, Sun's failure to cash in on Java has helped it remain a neutral steward of the technology, but that dynamic will change under Oracle. At JavaOne this week, one Sun employee summed up the difference between the two companies, saying an Oracle staffer had told him recently, "We're not a nonprofit company like you guys."

Developers at the show are chiefly concerned with three things: Will Oracle keep Java open? Will it use its control over Java to favor its own products? And, finally, which Java technologies will be killed off after the merger?

Using its control over Java to favor Oracle's own products would drive developers away from the platform, show attendees said. "The worst-case scenario would be if Oracle did some tight integration, " said Kevin Hooke, a Java developer with a large technology consulting firm.

Similarly, rolling the annual JavaOne conference into Oracle's Open World event -- a plan rumored to be in the works, according to show attendees -- would hurt the Java development community, which has pushed for independence from Sun ever since Java's inception. "If you fold JavaOne into an Oracle-only conference, you're going to harm the foundation of Java," Hooke said.

Publicly Sun executives are forging ahead as if the Oracle merger weren't happening. Aside from Ellison's brief appearance, Sun executives either made no mention of the acquisition or declined to comment on the issue at the show. Sun has acknowledged, however, that it can't say for sure whether Oracle will continue to develop things like its cloud computing services if the acquisition goes through.

JavaOne attendees were particularly worried about whether Oracle would continue to support Sun's GlassFish, OpenJDK and JavaFX products. Oracle already sells two application servers, the WebLogic and Oracle Application Servers, so it may see no need to support the open-source GlassFish. OpenJDK is another open-source product, a version of the core desktop Java SE platform, released under the GNU General Public license.

It remains to be seen whether Oracle will nurture the Java community as Sun has done, or shift much of Java's development in-house, said Jarec Basham, software and systems development manager at Infoterra, a U.K. company that provides satellite imagery and geospatial data to a variety of industries. "I think it depends how Oracle sees the revenue growing. They seem like more of a 'spreadsheet-driven' company," he said.

Although Oracle may not have much experience in the desktop software business, Ellison did make a point of mentioning JavaFX -- a Java-based alternative to Microsoft's Silverlight and Adobe AIR -- during his JavaOne appearance. "We'd like to see accelerated development based on this exciting new platform Java with FX," he said.

An analyst at the show agreed that Oracle would likely keep FX alive.

"Given that Oracle has all of these applications that will need flashy front ends, I don't think it's impossible that Oracle will actually invest in JavaFX so that they have the whole stack," said James Governor, an analyst with RedMonk. "Oracle doesn't want to be beholden to Silverlight … it also doesn't really want to be beholden to Adobe."

Attendees -- especially those who used Sun's Solaris operating system -- expressed relief that Sun's initial suitor, IBM, didn't succeed. Because IBM's product line is so similar to Sun's, that would have meant a lot more dropped projects, and a lot more pain for Sun users who would be forced to migrate their software.

Under Oracle, developer community relations probably won't be as good as they were with Sun, said Surya Pasula, a Java architect with Kaiser Permanente. But while there may still be questions about Java's future, he said the Oracle buyout is "better than IBM."

Murali Gundu, lead software engineer with Comcast's StreamSage division, which develops video search services for Comcast customers, said he was "extremely happy about Oracle," because it has so much expertise in databases and data retrieval and can build an optimized stack down through the OS and the servers. There would have been too much overlap and redundancy with IBM, he said.

"If it had been IBM that acquired Sun I would have had much more doubt," he said. With Oracle, "I am more confident that Java will stay forever."

The most straightforward comment on the acquisition came from Ellison after Sun Chairman Scott McNealy asked him if this would be the last JavaOne and if Oracle planned to "close the technology up."

Ellison's reply: "Sun has done a fantastic job inventing Java, expanding Java, opening up Java, giving Java to the world, and we're going to do more of the same. I don't expect a lot of changes, just an expanded investment and a lot of enthusiasm coming from Oracle."

Oracle's CEO didn't answer McNealy's question about whether JavaOne would be back next year.

(James Niccolai contributed to this story.)

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