Sun, in case you don't know - and there's no reason you should - has quietly gone and gotten one of its many licenses (Sun has licenses the way Imelda Marcos has shoes) admitted to the tiny pantheon of official open source licenses worshiped by the Linux community.
Taking no chances, it got two ministers to officiate.
It signed up the Open Source Initiative (OSI), the entity presided over by open source theologian Eric Raymond, the guy who got his hands on Microsoft's Linux-fretting Halloween Papers two years ago and published them, and then Sun went and got the backing of the Free Software Foundation, the originator of the famous open source-defining General Public License (GPL), the veritable Petronius Arbiter of this kind of stuff.
The Free Software Foundation evidently needed a bit of persuasion. So Sun whistled up Brian Behlendorf, dean of the Apache Software Foundation and head of Collab.Net, the let's-get-open-source-developers-some-paying-work venture in which Sun is conveniently an investor, to persuade the great god of GNU and GPL, Richard Stallman (basically the guy who invented open source), that a specification is as good as if not better than putting out code. You see, the license that Sun wanted canonized, a thing called the Sun Industry Standards Source License or SISSL, says you don't have to hang your proprietary code out like Monday's wash. You can supply a specification and reference implementation of any deviations instead. Sun claims this is often more understandable than the raw code.
Anyway, SISSL, which is pronounced Sizzle, is supposedly good for commercial products because it lets developers keep their actual code, especially kernel-level code, proprietary while using open source code to bootstrap their implementations of standards-based technologies.
Now why, you may ask, has Sun, which is a distinctly proprietary company, gone to all this trouble? It's because Sun, which has previously held Java in a studied death grip, is suddenly toying with the idea of open sourcing it. (Really, talk about manic-depressive.)
If one associates Linux with open source (and it's impossible to separate Linux from its theological apparatus), then the upstart operating system that Sun secretly wishes would fall into the same gaping crevice as Microsoft is having as great an impact on the burgeoning monolith as Sun and Java have had on the popular imagination. Sun is wrestling with the idea of open sourcing Java to appear a thought leader, even though in reality it will be a thought follower, and needs to pull off the caper in such a way that its handsome market cap (now nose to nose with, if not a nose ahead of, the mighty IBM's) isn't damaged. Java may have contributed little to Sun's coffers, but it's certainly made Sun's stockholders rich, and you know how skittish Wall Street is.
Anyway, SISSL is pretty much a GPL, except that under SISSL the source code has to be maintained by a standards body and, since there's no way Sun is going to let any outside body get its hands on it - one ECMA catastrophe is enough, thank you (SISSL gives Sun license, so to speak, to keep Java under its thumb) - SISSL is secretly the model Sun says it's looking for to make Java open source. It'll be the rationale to turn the notorious Java Community Process (JCP), which knowledgeable insiders assure us remains very much a creature of Sun for all its vaunted liberalization recently, into a standards organization, and voilą, control is extended and purified.
Sun says it's been kicking around the idea of open sourcing Java for years, and what with internal resistance to the idea ebbing somewhat (even if selling the idea inside is still its biggest hurdle), George Paolini, vice president of the JCP, went and made a speech at ApacheCon in London in October and used the words Java and open source in the same sentence, something that's never been done in public before.
Sun says we can take Paolini's trial balloon as a "commitment" even though Sun has no idea when it could do such a thing or exactly what Java we're talking about here: Standard, EE, or the whole magilla. There also needs to be a definitive ruling on IP. Well, IBM did develop an awful lot of it, ya know, and even if it was all supposed to be turned over to Sun or something, lawyers' opinions can vary with the tides and it was supposedly all that code that somebody else developed that stopped Sun in its tracks from making its Solaris operating system open.
It's also unclear how the major Java licensees such as BEA Systems might take to the gambit. These guys are supposed to have a lot of say now about the direction of the Java roadmap and make contributions to it. BEA's whole business depends on Java so its reaction should be interesting. Sun says it's never explicitly discussed the subject with the licensees, and notes that the terms of their licenses are all different so they might react to the IP issue differently. Paolini sent the key licensees a warning note when he got back from London about what he said and Sun says so far they haven't reacted.
As far as when goes, Sun's biggest concern is with what it calls critical mass, a term it can't exactly define, but it says that, whatever it is, Java has to get to it before it can go open source. That way it can't be forked, and "compatibility," an idea precious to the master of Java, will be retained. You see, if that many people are using it, then compatibility would have to be maintained. Sun has repeatedly used the compatibility issue to preserve its sometimes-suffocating stewardship over Java.
Java is currently licensed under the Sun Community Source License (SCSL), which is no friend of Linux developers and has certainly short-circuited clean-room Java-on-Linux projects as well as given open source developers attitudes about Sun that are similar to the esteem in which they hold Microsoft.
Sun sees open sourcing Java as neutralizing some of the flak it's taken from Microsoft and Java partner IBM about how it's exercised its stewardship. Come to think of it, Microsoft has mentioned the words C# and open source in the same sentence in its discussions with ECMA, the standards body that will be standardizing the new Java-leveling programming language (and would have been standardizing Java instead if Sun hadn't bolted). Sun may ultimately need to open source Java to guarantee ubiquity in the face of onslaughts from the Evil Empire.
Maureen O'Gara is the editor of Client Server News, a weekly subscription-based newsletter focused on Microsoft and Windows NT, The Online Reporter, a weekly subscription-based newsletter on e-business,
and LinuxGram.com, a free Web site dedicated to breaking Linux news.