Just a few years ago, the running geek joke was that Larry Ellingson was second rate, knew it, loathed it and suffered under the whithering scorn of Microsoft who was at that stage "outcompeting" Oracle on every front. Heck MS-SQL was even outselling Oracle Database as impossible as that may sound today.
Well the joke is over that’s for sure. Larry spent the last few years on a drive of targetted acquisitions that usually ended up buying companies for their products and putting most of the employees who created those products out of a job (that btw. of ye who worship the "invisible hand of the market" does NOT count as economic growth. Bigger companies with FEWER employees is bad for everybody – including customers) culminating now in the acquisition of SUN.
Unlike most such acquisitions Oracle did not need to fire most of SUN’s top engineers – they almost all walked out on the first day in protest. These were people who worked for what was once perhaps the closest thing to noble any corporation could be, a company that was once rated the best I.T. company in the world to work for – founded by engineers. Oracle’s culture is almost a polar opposite – it has always and forever been for them about one thing only: how much money can we make.
Oracle’s purchase of SUN gave them control over a number of major technologies – the sun hardware business being practically speaking the least of them. SUN may not in recent years have been very good at monetizing their assets but the software technologies they owned were nonetheless disruptive, innovative and major forces in the market – and now Oracle owns them all.
They own MySQL – a database that was rapidly chewing away at their market share. Most analysts never realized just how huge a threat to their primary bottom line MySQL really was. A few more years, MySQL may have supplanted Oracle as the market leader in databases and the number two spot would have belonged to PostGreSQL. If you thought Oracles competition was Ingress and IBM’s DB2 they looked untouchable – but while this fooled analysts (and oracle was happy to keep them fooled) it wasn’t a true picture. Oracle knew very well that MySQL and PostgreSQL had the capacity to take over the database market from them and the inevitability of that success which is practically built into any successfull FOSS business model.
So Oracle bought SUN to get MySQL. The other major technology they wanted was Java. That most beloved of academic languages that somehow never took off on desktops or the web it was supposedly created for. It didn’t take off on desktops because frankly the story of Java the web-language was a bit of marketing. James Gossling and his team had designed oak: a language created for mobile and embedded systems, to capitalize on a coming revolution. SUN wasn’t wrong in predicting said revolution – they were just 15 years too early, so in the meantime they reinvented Oak into Java, called it a web-language and got it out there, getting a stable of developers ready.
Java expanded it became a darling of back-end services and application-service systems (tomcat is a lovely example). It became a cornerstone language in the market for many tasks (developing user-facing desktop applications was never it’s strong suit but there’s a lot more to the programming world than those) – and when the embedded revolution did come, Java was it’s darling.
It still is, J2ME is the most widely usable phone development platform there is. Android apps are written in a slight variant of desktop Java (but Android can also run J2ME apps through a compatibility layer). Even Windows7 phones support Java apps. The only exception is Android’s biggest rival: The Iphone.
People talk about Steve Jobs’s refusal to allow flash on the iphone but much more important is his continued prevention of java as a language. Both are prevented for one reason only: it makes iphone into a walled garden, whose apps run on nothing else, and which cannot run apps developed for anything else. Such deliberately blocking of interoperability is bad for the consumers and gets worse in the long run – in fact, it’s a classic Microsoft business technique (less so nowadays because Microsoft is frankly not as powerful as it once was and cannot get away with it so easilly).
Android is the great thorn in Apple’s side – a platform that gives comparable features while being open and interoperable breaks down the value of their walled garden approach. Apple however never had the gutts to sue Google – instead they sued HTC and other handsent manufactuers – their hope being to scare the handsets away from googles stack with the very real threat of patent litigation.
So far, nobody has backed down so I think Apple’s plan isn’t working very well for them. Larry Ellingson however, did not sue HTC. Larry went after google itself. It doesn’t have much choice really – their claim is that google’s adapted desktop JVM on a phone (rather than a desktop computer) violates the Java licensing (those parts that aren’t GPL’d at least) and patents. Patents which recent posts by people like James Gossling reveal to have been filed for absolutely no other reason than to build SUN a defensive position when other companies sued the once patentless company over trivial patents and won. Patents created through a "lets see who can get the stupidest patent granted" competition among the staff !
Now those patents belong to one of the most unscrupulous businessmen in I.T. today. The suit against google is about one thing – firmly cementing Oracle as the dictator over Java. They who shall decide which java features are available on which platforms. Google perhaps has some room for a defense based on stretching the defintions of desktop computer. Android is pretty close to a desktop OS as it is, and tablets will bring it even closer (much as it did for Apple). As the line between "phone" and "pc" has gotten blurrier – perhaps the legal seperation of the concepts aren’t so clear anymore either. I’m no lawyer so I won’t debate the viability of this but it’s worth considering that when J2ME was created with it’s smaller feature-set (a feature-set not good enough for Androids capabilities) phones (and the apps they could run) were far less powerful than they are now. My HTC Desire has more processing power than any of my first 5 computers. It just happens to fit in my pocket.
Oracle wants control over Java at that level. Sun already gave us the core java technologies under the GPL which makes oracle weak in what they can do with it, but here they are showing the power of patents. The Harmony class-libraries from apache were based on the GPL’d java source code, Android’s JVM is based on Harmony – yet Oracle is asserting a power that the GPL specifically removes: to control where and how the code may be run. Harmony remains an uncertified Java set – because to get certified requires one to comply with an additional license that removes almost all the GPL freedoms.
Oracle didn’t go after Harmony, at least – not yet, they went after Google and they have one goal in mind here: to take back control over Java. Ironic because it’s exactly the fact that SUN has been evermore relaxed about controlling it over the years that allowed it’s continued growth. It remains one of the few parts of SUN’s software business that was actually profitable right to the end.
But control Java, and you control a huge section of the software market, particularly that part where Oracle is the strongest. If you destroy it in the process ? So what. Oracle DB will only get stronger if that happens – they would much rather lose the Java revenue to protect their database market at all costs.
So does this mean the end of Java ? This lawsuit already has companies clamoring to start processes to move their code from Java to other platforms which has a largely negative knock-on effect on everybody (and ultimately the worst on consumers) so it’s already done terrible harm. It is likely to get worse. If Google prevails, or comes out with a good settlement – then mobile Java may yet survive – it’s too huge a market to die easily. If they fail – even that is dead.
But Java as we know it died the day Larry Ellingson filed that lawsuit. It will spend quite a few years on involuntary muscle spasms as the case drags on – but it’s dead. In the interest of consumers and corporates and everybody else outside Oracle it is now truly vital to viably replace all of Java with a truly free alternative. The good news is that the core Java technologies ARE GPL’d. Java may be dead – but it is now time to ressurect it, in a new form without corporate control. Use th GPL’d code that SUN gave us before it’s demise and rebuild the rest from the ground up. We weren’t far from it even before -nothing should stop us now.
I propose this as the new number one entry on the FSF’s important-projects list. We need a free J2ME, a free JVM, a free servlet engine. I write as somebody who learned Java at University and never voluntarily used it since. I despise the language, I find it clunky and hard to read and harder to build with and I much prefer leaner and cleaner languages like python myself, but I recognize the value Java and it’s position has brought to computing, I recognize the harm it can do to once more revert this power into a single corporate entity’s hands. In fact it will be far worse now. Java is much more powerful, and it’s not Oracle’s primary product for them it is nothing BUT a means of control – so they will fight to control it entirely, and with it a thousand companies and a million developers and a hundred million users.
I may not like Java – but I know we cannot let that happen.