Q&A: James Gosling likes the idea of open-source Java

But he's not sure it will happen anytime soon

SAN FRANCISCO -- If pressed to vote yea or nay, James Gosling said this week at the JavaOne conference here that he would cast his ballot in favor of making core pieces of Java open-source, even though he recognizes that some of his Sun Microsystems Inc. colleagues make strong counterarguments. Excerpts from Computerworld's interview with Gosling, the Sun fellow and vice president who unleashed the programming language eight years ago, follow:

What's the latest thinking on making Java open-source? I am certainly one of the people who would love to make it open-source. But it's hard for two reasons. One is that open-source ways of dealing with software work really well so long as you get this sort of collegial atmosphere. If you happen to have a bully on the block who is really strong, it really doesn't work. We have this history of having been victimized, and there are lots of people who are nervous about that.

The other issue is that when you've got a platform technology like Java, there are really two sides to the community. There are the people who are building the platform, and the people who are using the platform. From the point of view of the people who are using the platform, one of the most valuable things about Java is the consistency, the interoperability. And from the platform providers' side of the world, they feel it's this sort of tension. On the one hand, they just want to go off and do whatever they damn well please. On the other hand, they know that if they did that, they'd be cutting themselves off from some developers.

James Gosling of Sun Microsystems Inc.
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James Gosling of Sun Microsystems Inc.
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Being involved with interoperability is something that most manufacturers have this love-hate thing with. So we've tended to have our licenses be as close to open-source as we can be, while maintaining the one thing that we really care about, which is interoperability.

Given those arguments, do you still favor open-source for Java? I believe all of those arguments are actually correct. The question for me is, Have we gotten to a point where market pressures will enforce the values of the developer community? Are we someplace where there's no one player who could just take over and be the bully on the block? And I think we're basically there. But different people have different opinions on that.

Could Java go open-source soon? It could conceivably happen soon, although Sun is kind of a funny company. I don't really know what the right word is. We aren't like a dictatorship. We don't have somebody in the center that's the ultimate control. We aren't like a really hierarchical company. We're a consensus company, which in some ways is lovely and in some ways is completely maddening.

And this has been a point on which I think everybody agrees on the basic arguments about why we need to protect [Java], and I buy those arguments. The question is then, How do you enforce that? And right now, the argument is mostly, Are we there yet? If we really let it go, what would happen? And there are enough people that are pretty nervous. Right now, that's kind of where the consensus is, but it's slowly been inching away.

I think the JCP [Java Community Process program] has been extremely successful, and I think that is turning into a proof of concept.

That the process works? Yeah.

Do you think some more pieces will be made open-source, or will it be the whole thing? We could do the whole thing. We could do it by pieces. We've discussed all of them. We actually do open-source a lot of stuff, but not the core bits. And we've talked about slicing up the core so that some of it's open-source, and by and large, that isn't an easier problem than doing the whole thing.

When do you think it could happen? Don't know. There are days when I feel like it's going to be tomorrow. There are days when I feel like it's going to be never. It depends on if I've been talking to the lawyers. If I talk to the lawyers involved in the Microsoft case, I always come back completely horrified, [thinking] if we ever do this, we're screwed.

Other days? Other days where I'm just fat and happy.

Have you made your feelings known internally at Sun, that you favor open-source? Oh, yeah. I've always felt that sort of in the abstract, open-source is the right thing to do for a lot of the kinds of things that we do. There are a variety of issues that make it a very complex discussion as to whether it actually works as a business.

You feel that Java has now reached a level of popularity with the market that would ensure that Java remained interoperable? Yeah. My personal feeling is that we're over the edge, but I also feel a little nervous about that. There are still all kinds of opportunities for mayhem. ... I'm not convinced that I'm right. I like to bitch and moan about lawyers, but they often have actually good points.

Do you get much feedback from JCP partners? My impression is that a really, really high-order concern for the whole development community is interoperability and consistency. And right now we're at a level with our licenses where we are as close to open-source as we can be while having a pretty decent hold on the whole interoperability story. The thing that we and everybody in the community are concerned about is making sure that the interoperability story carries on.

How much is the open-source debate going on internally at Sun? We have this discussion all the time. We've been having this discussion for years.

More so recently? I think more so recently. But we were having it long before it became a big thing in the press. ... Early on, everybody was terrified of Microsoft because of their behavior. [But] in the early days of Microsoft, they were actually wonderful. The people at Microsoft that ran the relationship with us were really great. Then if you look at the evidence logs, there was this one e-mail that came down from on high to the managers running the Java relationship with Sun that sort of said, "You don't get it. This isn't our business model." And then the guy who was in charge of the Java effort at Microsoft basically was no longer in that position sort of instantaneously, and immediately our relationship with Microsoft just changed. I mean, they were pulling every trick one could imagine. And it turned into a court case, and it was just awful.

At that time, open-source Java didn't look like such a good idea to you? I was so happy we had that contract.

When did you have your change of heart that Java is now ready for open-source? Probably a year or so ago.

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