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After Oracle's Sun takeover, what now for Java?

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29th Apr 2009
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Now the dust has settled following Oracle's $7.4bn takeover of Sun Microsystems, Stuart Lauchlan looks at the legacy for the Java community and whether the firm has taken onboard lessons from its previous acquisition trail.

By Stuart Lauchlan, news and analysis editor

Last week's shock announcement by Oracle that it was taking over long time partner Sun Microsystems left a number of questions in its wake, most notably the fate of Java. Will Oracle's ownership prove to be a boon or a bane to the wider Java movement? The answer will impact on the entire industry but opinions are still divided as to what degree and what the long-term effect will be.

"If Oracle closes the Sun acquisition, the Java community could see a welcome new realignment that will place realpolitik ahead of religion," reckons Tony Bear, of research house Ovum. "Based on its BEA track record, it is evident that Oracle will likely take a dispassionate look at Sun's Java technology portfolio. Rather than wage dogmatic standards battles, Oracle will look at Sun's Java stack opportunistically."

Oracle finally acquired application server firm BEA systems in April last year following a high-profile hostile takeover bid.

A change in attitude

But its not all good news. One of the major questions surrounding Oracle's proposed acquisition of Sun is the fate of the overlapping Java-based product sets. "The problem for Sun is that although it invented Java it never profited from it," argues Bear. "Over the years, Sun became so vocal on waging standards wars that it overwhelmed its Java marketing message. We expect a quieter, more market-driven approach from Oracle.

"Over the years, Sun became so vocal on waging standards wars that it overwhelmed its Java marketing message. We expect a quieter, more market-driven approach from Oracle."

Tony Bear, Ovum

"Based on how Oracle converged BEA's products, we expect a more realistic, nuanced strategy. As with BEA, Oracle will likely dissect the Sun Java portfolio into 'strategic', 'continue and converge', and 'maintenance' buckets, based on market presence and whether Sun's products fill any gaps. Considering that Sun never successfully marketed its Java stack, we anticipate that relatively few acquired products will be deemed strategic."

Sun's previous style of leadership over the Java Community Process (JCP) chafed key members such as IBM. Using the pretext of a battle over Java development tool GUI controls, IBM spearheaded the formation of the Eclipse Foundation in 2001, marking the emergence of the first rival power centre to the JCP. Sun later responded by forming NetBeans, but in intervening years it never attained parity with Eclipse's third-party support.

Additionally, within the JCP, Sun often found itself on the wrong side of Java Specification Requests (JSRs) debates, such as an alternative component bundling specification to the widely popular OSGi or Java Business Integration (JBI), which lacked support from the two biggest Java players (IBM and then independent BEA). Outside the JCP, there was JavaFX, Sun's shot in the dark for a JVM-native rich internet client that contended with the better known Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight.

"We anticipate that Oracle will adopt a more realistic attitude towards NetBeans and Eclipse - a development that could settle this battle with a whimper rather than a bang," says Bear. "That will set the stage for more rationalised competition with IBM and JBoss/Red Hat for a development community that now has considerably more options than when IBM first spearheaded the formation of the Eclipse Foundation. Oracle's acquisition of Sun means a more realistic approach to Java portfolio and standards."

But Steven O'Grady at analyst firm Redmonk also cautions: "Oracle, like IBM, is heavily invested in a Java world, from the tools back-up to the middleware portfolio. And clearly, Oracle understands the importance of the ecosystem and is unlikely to rock the boat via draconian or dictatorial changes to the JCP. That said, it remains to be seen whether or not large Java players such as IBM will be as comfortable being strategically beholden to a clear and present danger like Oracle versus the smaller and, therefore, less threatening Sun. Could we see, for example, an IBM developer strategy that while still Java focused, incorporates rather than attacks the increasing diversity of deployment models? This acquisition is likely to have them at least asking that question."

A good Java citizen

However, Oracle has been a good Java citizen to date, suggests Gartner Group, and will be aware of the implications of rocking the boat too much. "Java is among the most valuable assets at stake in Oracle's proposed acquisition of Sun. Gartner believes that control of Java was one of the main drivers behind the deal," says Gartner Group's Massimo Pezzini. "But ownership of Java will require some diplomacy on Oracle's part. If Oracle makes over Java into a proprietary technology or dramatically increases the cost of Java licenses, it risks limiting Java's popularity and profitability. IBM, SAP and Nokia have never perceived Sun as a threat to their business in the enterprise software and mobile markets comparable to the threat potentially represented by Oracle.

"Should Java technology fragment or should Oracle be perceived as 'locking in' Java to a proprietary technology, the IT industry is likely to lose its enthusiasm for Java and seek alternatives — with Microsoft as the most obvious option."

Massimo Pezzini, Gartner Group

The outcome, he says, could be that important Java industry participants believe Oracle has "hijacked" Java, they will strive to reduce their dependency on a technology controlled by a major competitor. "Heavily invested in Java, these companies could not afford to suddenly drop their support for it due to the large number of their customers using Java-based products and the lack of readily available alternatives," Pezzini adds. "Instead, vendors may be tempted to develop their own Java-compatible technologies."

This would raise the prospect of a fragmented Java market with different flavours. "The market could break down into the 'true' Oracle Java, IBM's derivative, an SAP variant and possibly 'open source' variants," notes Pezzini. "Such fragmentation would be catastrophic for Java as well as for Oracle, dramatically devaluating its acquisition."

But he also believes Oracle is likely to take aggressive steps to reassure the industry that it will maintain and possibly reinforce the open nature of the JCP and Java. "The IT industry values Java for its vendor-neutral and open qualities. For 15 years, users and independent software vendors have invested in Java and facilitated its adoption, due largely to the portability of Java applications across hardware platforms, operating systems, database management systems and other systems," Pezzini continues.

"Should Java technology fragment or should Oracle be perceived as 'locking in' Java to a proprietary technology, the IT industry is likely to lose its enthusiasm for Java and seek alternatives — with Microsoft as the most obvious option."

 

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