A year ago this week Sun finally bowed to pressure and agreed to make Java a free, open source project. It was an odd move given Sun's strong resistance to making Java open source for a more than a decade.
Twelve months on, open source Java has made things a little easier for developers and attracted some expressions of support. It's notable, though, that no industry events have been arranged to celebrate the date while Sun's tools and runtimes continue to search for a role among Java developers.
Getting to open source was a long road. As late as 2004 co-founder and former chief executive Scott McNealy insisted Sun had no plans to make Java open source. He argued that only Sun could protect Java's integrity as a universal, cross-platform language and that the open source process could lead to fragmentation.
Less than two years later, McNealy's successor Jonathan Schwartz described the open source move as "momentous". It's amazing what a change of leadership can do. The choice of McNealy's birthday as the date of the open source announcement was, surely, coincidence.
While he had led Sun successfully from 1984, McNealy's last few years as CEO saw substantial losses, staff lay-offs and factory closures. And, despite birthing Java, Sun's own technological and business ineptitudes (here and here) had seen Sun's software overtaken by others in quality and user numbers.
Something had to give.
With Schwartz - formerly, and briefly, in charge of Sun's software business - now running the show, part of the long-overdue changes involved switching Java to open source. It was a move that was - mostly - welcomed, although Sun's decision to release the Java source using the GPL 2 licence was criticized.
There was also some collateral damage in the loss of a couple of senior executives who were not convinced of the strategic merit of open source. Sun fellow and Java chief Graham Hamilton left because he disagreed with the move. And Larry Singer, Sun's vice president of global information systems strategy, revealed recently he also left because, among other reasons, he disagreed with Schwartz over the open source strategy.
Was open sourcing Java worth the pain? Java's transition to open source has offered some positives for Sun - especially in the increasingly important mobile applications market. James Gosling - the creator of Java who took over Hamilton's role at Sun - said back in May he was pleased with the progress of Java as an open source project. This was echoed in August by Sun's software executive vice president Rich Green.
More recently, Terrence Barr, Sun's mobile and embedded systems evangelist, gave a positive spin on the history of Java's progress in the last year. He also said that Java could appear on Apple's iPhone in 2008.
Added to this, Google's enthusiasm for Java and talk of Sun working with Samsung on a Java phone to rival the iPhone could put Java in a strong position in this emerging market.
And, Red Hat's announcement last week that it would work closely with Sun on open source projects - and Java in particular - adds some weight to Sun's strategy.
Even before it became open source, though, Java already occupied a strong position in open source development with hundreds of Java-based projects under way. However, Sun's decision to remove most of the encumbrances that had confused the licensing of Java applications has undoubtedly helped further the Java cause among open source developers. Sun said by the end of October there had been close to 12,700 full downloads of the open source Java Development Kit (JDK) since its release in May.
The real question remains, though, whether the move to open Java has helped - or will help - Sun attract developers and close the gap on Java developer tools and middleware rivals that opened up in the 1990s.
Despite the return to profit this year and vague mumblings about open source Java is helping it sell hardware in "emerging" markets, it is far too early to say whether slipping the leash from Java will contribute to Sun's success or make it any more relevant to software developers - which today, is not very relevant at all.
Sun is vague on Java customer numbers, talking in guarded terms of "strong" or "positive" figures, but it's been either unable or unwilling to share these figures. And, we're still waiting for Sun's software to make the kinds of numbers that will allow the CEO to finally break out revenue, to see how things are really doing.
When explaining his departure from Sun in the CIO panel session last week, Singer revealed, perhaps, more than he ought to have done about Sun's problem with making money from open source software. Asked why he fell out with Schwartz over Java he replied: 'Because he open sourced everything, and I had talked to some people at Oracle who were looking at trying to buy us, and they decided that our software was worth nothing anymore, so what the hell do you value the company at?'®