Sun says Java technology will now be available as Open Source software. But have they really gone all the way and what does this mean for the next big push expected in mobile devices? Anand Parthasarathy had his ear to the ground at the JavaOne developer conference in San Francisco.

Anand Parthasarathy

For a decade Sun Microsystems has touted the mantra `The network is the computer'!' suggesting that the Internet is where all the action would be, not on individual desktop machines. At its annual JavaOne conference in San Francisco earlier this month the world's largest gathering of software geeks the Chief Executive, Jonathan Schwartz, offered a new catch line, just one year after he took over from the charismatic and outspoken Scott McNealy, author of the original phrase.

The company's revised take is "The network is in your hands!" a canny reworking that takes note of the fact that the mobile phone not the personal computer has emerged as the world's most pervasive `connected' device, its number growing 20 times faster.

The revised `vision' was held up at a time when parent company Sun claims it has finished `freeing' Java that is, making it a completely `free-n-open' member of the Open Source community. "With regard to `opening' Java, we are done" announced the Executive Vice-President (Software), Rich Green, with finality, in his opening keynote.

Less than a year after expressing its intention to unshackle Java completely, the company announced that it was now an open source software under what is known as GPL v2 or General Public Licence (version 2), the most popular of the licensing systems for free, and by implication, non-proprietary, software tools.

Java has been (till the latest announcement) a widely used programming environment similar to Open Source software, but tightly controlled by Sun Microsystems. For instance, if you write a programme to control a mobile phone, say in Java, you could not distribute it freely you had to save the code in a format specified by Java and only another Java -based computer could read or modify it. Now Sun has made Java completely Open Source which means they have accepted a licensing regime similar to Linux. You can now create a Java based application and share it with the world for free without reference to Sun. Any other user can improve or modify it without needing Sun's permission.

It has been a long journey for a software player who for many years, tested the `open waters', but baulked at plunging in headfirst.

In what might or might not be a clever coincidence, Sony Pictures executive, Tom Hallman, was on hand to demonstrate how the navigation of a newly released high-definition version of its hit children's animation film, `Open Season', was crafted using the latest Java tools.

But has Sun really gone all the way in unshackling its prized code? Outside the cavernous halls where top executives delivered their keynotes, delegates were quick to assess if action matched the words spoken within: The bulk of the code was `open' - at Sun's OpenJDK (for Java Development Kit) Web site; but there were some exceptions: portions of Java that dealt with graphics, colours and fonts, for starters. Sun honchos were reluctant to say how much of Java's 6.5 million lines of code were truly free, but they admitted that some portions dealing with 2D graphics indeed remained encumbered. The explanation: Third party development rights were involved and Sun was unable to unilaterally release these under OGL. It was a plausible explanation - and one that was hotly debated by delegates when it was time to `go to the beanbags'. (Explanation for those who are not fans of Mario Puzo's `The Godfather': The book and film made a cult item of the phrase `go to the mattresses' - meaning prepare for gang war by hiring secret hideouts where the mafia hit men bought mattresses to sleep on the floor. When Java geeks go to `war' on technology, they go for beanbags rather than mattresses - see box).

Also unveiled in San Francisco were early versions of a new Java `avatar', JavaFX, an upcoming, consumer-focused family of the familiar software tools, that promises easier, more intuitive programming... a seeming response to the general grouse that Java requires hard core programming geniuses to create applications. The first offering in the JavaFX suite is aimed at mobile platforms and the assembled programmers were challenged to use JavaFX Mobile to reach the world's 5 million who currently do not own and cannot afford a phone or PC.

Scott McNeally, for long Sun's Chief Executive and now its Chairman, described one Net-based initiative, a Web resource, called Curriki ( www.curriki.org ) a combo word suggesting curriculum and wikipedia, the Web encyclopedia created by its users. The resource aims to place teaching materials for class 2 to 12 in a single portal where educationists are invited to contribute and enlarge.

A day later, Motorola's India-born-and-bred Chief Technology Officer, Padmasree Warrior, explained why WiMAX the technology that fuelled wireless Internet access over long distances and cellular phones, were `made for each other': it was a `combo' that would help extend mobile phone access from today's 2.7 billion to the next billion within two years.

In a country like India, for many new users, their first experience of the Internet would be on a mobile phone rather than on a PC. For major mobile players such as Motorola, Nokia, Ericsson and others, this was an opportunity not to be missed - though they would have to sell handsets at around Rs 1,000-1,500 to stake out a patch of the emerging turf.

And at the other end of the spectrum, Motorola has announced a high-end phone for hyper connected markets such as Korea: a model with full-feature, DVD-quality video.

The sheer numbers of Java developers worldwide (possibly the largest chunk in India) suggested that an Open tool such as the new JavaFX Mobile would trigger of thousands of new applications for portable platforms... just as the core Java offerings like an -source integrated development environment such as NetBeans or JavaFX Script, were already fuelling an esoteric range of applications.

At JavaOne's exhibition pavilion, these ranged from an innovative humanoid robot from Hong Kong's Wowee Robotics that Java programmers could programme to do walk, talk and perform a variety of domestic tasks... to an underwater submersible... to a robot helicopter... all harnessing the new and open technology that allowed programmers to "Write once - run anywhere".

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated May 21, 2007)
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