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Feature: Java

Java news met with cautious optimism in free Java community

By Bruce Byfield on November 14, 2006 (8:00:00 AM)

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The free Java community reacted positively, but cautiously, to the news that Sun Microsystems has released the code for Sun Java under the GNU General Public License. While community leaders showed appreciation of the news by cooperating in the announcement, developers in the free Java community reacted more tentatively, and at least some projects seem likely to continue development of their own implementations of Java.

Some free Java projects exist for specific purposes, like the Apache Harmony project which seeks to develop a version of Java for the larger Apache project. However, until now, the main reason for free Java projects has been the fact that, although many Java-based projects used a free license, Java itself did not.

In an essay, Richard M. Stallman of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) characterized the paradox of free software that depends on non-free software as "The Java Trap" and warned strongly against it.

In response to Java's licensing problem, numerous efforts to develop a free version of Java have sprung up over the years, including Kaffe, Classpath, and GNU Compiler for Java (GCJ). In the last few years, the merger of Classpath and GCJ in particular has resulted in a level of maturity for free Java that could run such programs as Eclipse, or, with a few hacks, the Java-based code of However, these results were never as complete as Sun Java, and generally lagged behind its latest versions.

Community leaders' reactions

With Sun's announcement, this situation appeared to have changed overnight, and the reaction is almost uniformly positive from community leaders. In fact, although Stallman is frequently accused of being anti-corporate, his response to the announcement has been nothing but supportive towards Sun.

Reacting to the rumors of the release that have been circulating for several weeks, in an interview with FSF Europe, Stallman stressed that, while an earlier release might have saved much of the effort in the free Java community, it would be important not to hold grudges and to accept Sun into the community. He also suggested that the growing progress shown by the free Java community would undoubtedly be part of the reason for the release.

For the actual release, Stallman cooperated so far as to record a video to accompany Sun's announcement. Ironically, this video is only viewable using the non-free Flash player, but, in it, Stallman has nothing but praise for Sun's action. "It will be very good that the Java trap won't exist any more," Stallman says. "I think that Sun with this contribution has contributed more than any other company to the free software community in the form of software. And it shows leadership -- it's an example I hope others will follow."

In another video, Eben Moglen of the Software Free Law Center was equally enthusiastic, calling the release "an extraordinary vote of confidence" in free software and stating that, by helping the free software community, Sun was also helping itself.

Other community leaders who contributed video interviews to the release include Brian Behlendorf, Tim O'Reilly and Mark Shuttleworth.

Developers' reactions

Many developers responded with the same enthusiasm. "This is actually a great shot-in-the-arm for the Kaffe project," says Jim Pick, Kaffe's maintainer. "We can now legally copy code straight out of Sun's JDK and use it in Kaffe! Expect us to start doing this very soon. All of the developers seem very excited."

One of the most important benefits of the release, Pick suggests, is that Kaffe can now "compare and test our implementation against the official one, without having to worry about getting on the wrong side of a lawsuit from Sun."

A similar sense of excitement is obvious in the reactions of most developers. Yet, at the same time, free software developers are more cautious in their reactions than the community leaders.

An early note of caution was sounded on the day of the release by Debian developer MJ Ray. "Don't get too happy." Ray warned on Debian Planet, pointing out that, according to Sun's FAQ, the plan is to "to release a fully buildable JDK based almost completely on open-sourced code in the first half of 2007," and emphasizes what he objects to in the statement with, "Almost, in 2007. Close, but no cigar yet."

Pers Bothner, once the technical lead for the Cygnus Java project, which did the initial work on GCJ, and now a contributor to a number of free Java projects such as Kawa and JEmacs, had a similar reaction. Earlier in the day Bothner's first reaction was to call the release "very good news," although he also pointed out that "Lots of people have worked hard on GNU Classpath, GCJ, and related projects, and probably some of these efforts could have been spent more efficiently if Java had been available sooner under a GPL-compatible license." Yet, by the end of the day, Bothner, like most developers, had become noticeably more cautious as he considered in more detail what the news would mean to the community.

The show goes on

In the interview with FSF Europe, Stallman anticipated a possible merger of free Java and Sun code. That merger may still happen, but the free Java community isn't necessarily counting on it. In fact, most members of the community anticipate that many free Java projects will continue.

The question of whether free Java projects will continue, Bothner writes on the GCC mailing list, is neither "dumb nor obvious." Bothner points out that, from comments in an interview with Tim Bray, some Java libraries may not be included, so free software equivalents may be needed.

"It seems plausible that we would merge in much but not all of Sun's code as Sun frees it," Bothner continues. He raises the question of whether some free Java implementations or applications may prove preferable to Sun's equivalents, while others may not be compatible. Such issues, Bothner writes, are "partly a technical question, partly a licensing/political one, and partly one of pragmatics."

Mark Wielaard, the GNU Classpath maintainer and a major contributor to GCJ, and Eclipse, says much the same. "There are lots of issues that we will have to look at," he tells NewsForge. "Can we combine GNU Classpath, GCJ, Kaffe, Cacao, JamVM, IKVM, etc. with the liberated Sun code immediately in such a way that we have an even better free platform really soon? How does the platform coverage compare between Hotspot and other [runtime environments]? What kinds of innovations can we carry over or must be kept separate? And how do we move the whole research field and GNU Classpath community projects (20+ now) forward without needing to rebase everything on some new code base?"

Many of the answers, Wielaard points out, will depend on "what parts of the core library [that Sun] can and cannot release over the next six months" as it prepares for the next code release. But, no matter what the answers, clearly Wielaard does not foresee the disappearance of free Java projects in the short term, nor even in the long term.

Geir Magnusson, of the Apache Harmony project, has addressed the effect of GPLed Java on his blog.

"People are asking what this means for Apache Harmony. I don't think that it will change our day-to-day life much in the project. We have the same goals, the same problem to solve, the same work to get done. As I've noted elsewhere, Apache and Sun have different communities, with different licenses, different conditions for contribution and different governance models. Apache projects are a collection of peers, and each of us our own reasons for participating. I believe that this good news today from Sun doesn't change what we'll be doing -- it just means even more open source Java, [and] choices for users and contributors."

In the end, the general attitude is that, no matter how many lines of code Sun ends up releasing, the company is just another contributor to Java -- and not automatically the most important one. "As significant as their contribution is," says Joel Dice, a GCJ contributor, "Many existing free Java projects remain relevant because they try to do more than simply provide a conforming implementation of Java. GCJ is an excellent example -- it's still far better than anything else for mixing Java, C++, and C code in the same program. Sun may accept or ignore any such line of experimentation as part of the 'true' Java, but we need not measure its success based on that alone."

For most free Java developers, the main point of the news seems to be an increased sense of possibilities. "I am sure you will hear great things from us all when we are done partying," Wielaard says, "And we exercise our freedom to innovate freely."

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge,, and IT Manager's Journal.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for

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on Java news met with cautious optimism in free Java community

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Posted by: Galik on November 15, 2006 01:44 AM
Fly your free!


The squeaky license gets the grease.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 15, 2006 07:09 AM
Well here we have QT all over again. Make enough noise and they'll open source just to get you off their backs.

"While community leaders showed appreciation of the news by cooperating in the announcement, developers in the free Java community reacted more tentatively, and at least some projects seem likely to continue development of their own implementations of Java."

Harmony 2: The Sequal.


too late

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on December 07, 2006 11:02 PM
have already moved on to PHP


Great news!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 15, 2006 12:39 AM
This is really great news!
Sounds like this is one of the biggest and important things that happening in a long time.

Sun Microsystems are awesome, they open sourcing Java, and sometime ago they open sourced the Niagra T1 CPU core and I've heard they're planning to release OpenSolaris under the GPL too!
Nobody can question the GPL anymore, those days are over!

Sun is now my favourite company along with Google, the only thing that could be better would if Google and Sun cooperated, that sound like a good idea.<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:D

I don't know Java, I have never coded with Java, but now I might actually go and learn it!

Now many Linux distributions that hesitated to include Java before, can now include it, now that it is/will be free.

Now to end this post, I will chant what Steve Ballmer would have chanted if he loved and was really enthusiastic about Java;
JAVA! JAVA! JAVA! JAVA! JAVA! JAVA! JAVA! JAVA! JAVA!<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:D


Re:Great news!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 15, 2006 03:42 AM
Nobody can question the GPL anymore, those days are over!

Just because a big company chose to use it, doesn't mean it can't be questioned. I don't like at any more than I did before this news.


Re:Great news!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 15, 2006 04:12 AM
Well go ahead and question it then. We'll wait.

Seems to me the only people that are adamantly against the GPL are those that want to pilfer code and not give anything back. Lovers of BSD and Apache licenses who actually release code under them understand and acknowledge the GPL, they just don't choose to use it.

Why don't you like it then?


Re:Great news!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 15, 2006 07:21 AM
I'm #92933

Well, I don't like the gpl personally because I prefer the bsd license. But that's not the point, it's fine with me if you like it. My point was that it's not any better just because sun chose to use it.

I do think java is now better that sun is going to release their implementation under the gpl. bsd would have been sweet, but it's great that it matches the goals of such a large community (instead of, say, the cddl) and at the end of the day, I will finally have binary packages for openbsd.



Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 15, 2006 04:27 PM
Remember, folks, the Sun Java code isn't GPL'd *yet*. Sun has merely announced that it *intends* do so. They ain't done it yet.

When (if) the code is at last freed, then I, too, will gladly celebrate. But don't count your eggs too early.



Posted by: Administrator on November 15, 2006 10:31 PM
<a href="" title=""><nobr>k<wbr></nobr> /</a>

Yeah it is...



Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 16, 2006 11:36 AM
Just read the above link, thanks. It appears, though, that there are still some pieces that are encumbered.

<a href="" title=""><nobr>s<wbr></nobr> p</a>

From reading the above link, though, it also appears that these pieces are of minimal effect and would not significantly restrict us from using Sun Java as Free Software. Sun says here that it is working on either replacing those still-encumbered pieces with new implementations or getting those remaining encumbered pieces freed.

This is indeed good news.



Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 16, 2006 12:10 PM
From reading that link I see that the class libraries do not appear to be released under the gpl. I don't think you can call that "of minimal effect".

Also, the faq also says that it is the version 7 code that is being released. Version 7 will not be stable and released for years yet, given that version 6 is not out currently. This makes the release useless for anything other than fooling around with. Wake me up when the release a *full* code base for a finished product suitable for use in production (and that passes the tck).



Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 17, 2006 02:43 PM
OK, you're being awakened--partly.<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-) From the aforementioned Sun FAQ:

"Q: What license did you choose for the open-source JDK components?

"A: GPL v2 for almost all of the virtual machine, and GPL v2 + the Classpath exception for the class libraries and those parts of the virtual machine that expose public APIs."

Thus, it looks to me like the class libraries are indeed GPL'd. However, you do seem to be right about the version 6 code:

"Q: Which version of the JDK do these components come from? Are you open sourcing the latest code?

"A: We're open-sourcing these components from a very early build of JDK 7. In order to prepare these components to be open sourced, we not only changed the license text but we also simplified the build process in order to make these components more easily buildable outside of the full JDK source tree. JDK 6, is nearly finished, hence we're releasing these components from the JDK 7 tree. The only other differences between the JDK 6 and 7 versions of these components are minor bug fixes and enhancements that have already been integrated into the JDK 7 tree. When we open-source the full JDK we'll make the sources for both JDK 6 and JDK 7 available. The community will have both a stable release - JDK 6 - on which to focus quality improvements, and JDK 7, the next feature release where all the action will be for innovation and new capabilities."

You made a good catch. A careful reading of this shows that Sun is talking up the GPL'ing of the "early" v7 code. But while they express their future intent, never do they say that they actually have done likewise with the v6 code. It's pretty clever wording, IMO.

So, it looks like, to some degree, we're back to my original statement: "First, LET'S SEE THE CODE." Sounds like you agree.<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-)

BTW, I am in no way suggesting that we are obligated to use the entirety of Sun's apparently--and at this time--alpha-quality v7-based implementation. What I *am* saying is that now we can simply include the pieces that we want into GNU Classpath, and improve those pieces along the way. It's like vs. its "stable", but non-Free progenitor, StarOffice 5.2. It took a while for OO.o 1.0 to arrive, but it did, and look how far we've come. Same with the Mozilla source code (not the logos, of course.<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-) ). So, even if Sun decides to keep the "stable" Java v6 code non-Free, history's on our side here.



Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 18, 2006 01:56 PM
Hmm, that's odd about the class libraries. I must have missed that particular answer but I do remember several parts that specifically only mentioned the vm and the compiler.

And about GNU classpath, I thought they required all copyright to be handed over to the project, just so they could navigate future licensing tweaks without a hassle. Wouldn't that prevent them from taking on sun's code to which they obviously aren't going to get copyright?

I'm more interested in Apache Harmony myself anyway<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:p


My only worry

Posted by: Administrator on November 15, 2006 05:55 AM
Is that it might be too late by now. With the improvements that the community will no doubt bring, a lot of the objections to java will disappear and one can expect much improved integration with Linux and BSD kernels. But the will it be able to pick-up the momentum it has lost to<nobr> <wbr></nobr>.Net ?


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