Who Else Gains from a GPL'd Java?

Sun's announcement that it would be releasing Java under the GNU GPL confounded many of its critics (including myself) who had feared that the company was incapable of making such a bold move.  Quite rightly, it has garnered praise from across the hacker world.  But Sun's relationship with free software has not always been so idyllic.

For example, Sun gave no support to Dave Miller's port of GNU/Linux to the SPARC platform, no doubt because it saw the young upstart as a rival to Solaris.  In a way, this antagonism is ironic, because the spirit at Sun in the days of SunOS was remarkably close to that of the free software world.  As Larry McVoy, who worked there during this period, told me a few years ago:

SunOS was a source base that had engineers putting effort into it more out of love for intellectual correctness and excellence than out of rewards of my salary or my stock options.  It was seven or eight years of engineers sitting there on weekends polishing that thing.

Moreover, had Scott McNealy listened to McVoy, Sun could have seized the initiative and become the leader of the free software world very early on.  In his Sourceware Operating System Proposal, which he wrote during September and October 1993, McVoy suggested that Sun should give away the source code to its SunOS 4 version of Unix so that a united Unix platform could be created to take on the rapidly rising might of Microsoft.  Even more extraordinarily, as an alternative proposal, McVoy suggested that the Unix industry adopt GNU/Linux as this common platform - a bold move for the time, when Linux was barely two years old.

It was not to be, of course.  Instead, Sun watched suspiciously from the sidelines as GNU/Linux grew in strength, the power of free software became evident - and Microsoft became the dominant force in computing, just as McVoy had predicted.  Sun's first big move towards opening up came in 2000, when it made the source code of its StarOffice available, and set up the new OpenOffice.org project to develop it.  The hope was clearly that this would undermine Microsoft's Office suite, with the added bonus that it did not threaten Sun's principal revenue streams - Solaris and Java.

OpenOffice.org has blossomed into one of the most important free software projects, and may well turn out to be one of the pivotal programs in terms of converting people to an open source desktop, as I have argued elsewhere.  But the road from opening up StarOffice to opening up Java has been a long and painful one - a testament to the residual suspicions about free software that some within Sun still harbour.

Now that the deed has been done, and officially blessed by St IGNUcius, the natural question is: Who are the winners and losers?  I don't want to add to the many answers that have already been offered - here's one of the best - except to reflect on an aspect that doesn't seem to have been brought up much.

Obviously, two of the biggest "winners" in all this are Richard Stallman and the GNU GPL.  The latter, in particular, emerges greatly strengthened by Sun's choice.  After all, it was not so long ago that Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's current CEO, was warning against the GNU GPL on the grounds that it imposed on its users "a rather predatory obligation to disgorge all their IP back to the wealthiest nation in the world," as he put it.  Sun's ringing endorsement this week will go a long way to assuaging the concerns of others about the copyleft idea.

But there's an interesting knock-on effect of this GPL love-in.  It means that Sun's Java software can finally enter the more rigorous distributions like Debian, which has traditionally had problems with Sun's Java licensing.  That's important, because recent events have shown how vulnerable the "commercial" distributions like Red Hat and SuSE are to clever outflanking moves by well-heeled proprietary rivals.  This places any distribution that is largely created and supported by a company at risk from similar machinations.

Against this background, the bulwarks of software freedom are the distributions run by coders, not corporates: they are immune to the various marketing ploys employed by proprietary rivals to weaken and divide their business rivals.  Pre-eminent among these distributions is Debian and its derivatives, so anything that enhances their range and usefulness - like the addition of Sun's Java - is a big win for all of us.

Glyn Moody writes about free software at opendotdotdot .



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Ucapan Terima Kasih

Sinauw's picture

terima kasih atas informasinya

Sun gave no support to Dave Miller?

Patrick Finch's picture


As someone who works on open source at Sun, I disagree with your assertion that "Sun gave no support to Dave Miller's port of GNU/Linux to the SPARC platform, no doubt because it saw the young upstart as a rival to Solaris".

You neglect to mention both that the port was directly facilitated by Sun's decision to release to source of the UltraSPARC T1 chip under the GPL in the form of the OpenSPARC project for precisely such purposes, and that Sun donated hardware to Mr Miller and others working on the project.

Your implication is that Sun did not want to see the port happen, but as a direct result of the port, Sun is now listed as Debian derivative Ubuntu's only key partner.

Short of trying to hire Mr Miller away from Red Hat (doubtful that this would be in anyone's long-term interest), it is hard to see what else Sun should have done to support this valuable effort.

You describe an immunity to corporate marketing surrounding certain GNU/Linux distros. This does raise the question: what should Sun and other corporations do to make such details a matter of public record for responsible commentators like yourself?

kind regards



Glyn Moody's picture

...for not replying sooner.

Well, my source for this statement was a certain Dave Miller, who told me a few years back that in the beginning Sun was less than warm in their feelings towards his work.

I'm sure you're right that things changed, but the first Sun machines he used were at the Center for Advanced Information Processing at Rutgers. Dave said that they were "some older Sparc systems gathering dust" that he started playing with out of hacker curiosity and "boredom."

I'm afraid I don't quite understand your last paragraph: could you perhaps explain it a little, please, and I'll try to respond.

Sun's doing this 'cause they're in trouble

Anonymous's picture


First, thank you for your work on FOSS at Sun. If that is what you're doing, then you are doing a Good Thing.

Now, my memory's a bit longer than some who frequent here. I remember very well that Sun was one of the ones laughing at GNU/Linux and doing everything they could to make it look bad, compared to Solaris. That includes calling it "not enterprise ready," which is BS, since I've been running it on my enterprise servers since 2001 with excellent results. No, I'm no programmer, just an MCSE sysadmin. Sun *did* see GNU/Linux as a competitor. They made that very clear. Sun certainly didn't help GNU/Linux's port to the SPARC architecture any more than it helped the OpenBSD team do likewise...until very recently, i. e. this year. Sun looked totally schizophrenic with respect to GNU/Linux. Thankfully, that seems to have changed; your point about Ubuntu is one good example.

Also, let's remember that, recently, there was a major leadership change. Shortly thereafter is when we started seeing a different F/OSS strategy from Sun, including this recent GPL'ing of Sun Java.

That said, I certainly thank Sun for such critical pieces of software and network standards as OpenOffice.org, NFS, and now Java. It's nice to finally see Sun taking a clearer direction this way.

GNU/Linux as a competitor

Chris's picture

Sun *did* see GNU/Linux as a competitor. They made that very clear. Sun certainly didn't help GNU/Linux's port to the SPARC architecture any more than it helped the OpenBSD team do likewise...until very recently, i. e. this year. Sun looked totally schizophrenic with respect to GNU/Linux. Thankfully, that seems to have changed; your point about Ubuntu is one good example. very well sumarry


Dave Phillips's picture

Hi Glyn,

Thanks for the informative article. Great news for Java-based sound & music apps, they can finally go directly into the multimedia distros, along with Java itself. Makes me want to do a little dance. :)

Dave Phillips

Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.

Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.

A song and dance?

Glyn Moody's picture

Sounds right up your street....

Great News

Tarik's picture

I think its great because finally gpl on java, a big relief.

yes its good

sinau's picture

yes its good news

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