Who Else Gains from a GPL'd Java?

by Glyn Moody

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 .