Sun vice president James Gosling - the company's 'Mr Java' - believes his creation should become "more open source".

Interviewed last week at Sun's JavaOne conference, Gosling insists Java is established enough to see off incompatible technology that could fracture the development community.

"My personal feeling is that we're over the edge, but I also feel a little nervous about that," he said. "There are still all kinds of opportunities for mayhem."

Gosling recognizes the argument against the prooposal, as evinced by Sun executive vice president of software Jonathan Schwartz, who said the problem with open-source is the "tyranny of the volume leader".

Gosling said: "If Java was open-source, Microsoft could take it, deliver it as it sees fit and drive a definition of Java that was divergent from the one that the community wanted to be compatible. And to the victor would go the spoils of that nefarious action."

Sun formally established the Java Community Process (JCP) in 1998 to develop and revise Java technology, and it now claims that more than 650 members participate. The group protects intellectual property with a licence requiring anyone using a Java spec to demonstrate compatibility with Java's reference implementation.

Sun has made its standardization process more open and now allows for more technologies to be made available under an open-source licensing and development model, but has yet to make core elements of Java open-source.

Battle of Java In the past, Sun has litigated against Microsoft claiming the latter company violated its contract to use Java by trying to introduce a version that was incompatible with its specifications. This has made some colleagues particularly sensitive to the open-source issue, Gosling said. He added that there are still enough differences of opinion at Sun, which tends to be a consensus-driven company, that he can't predict when or if Java will be made open-source.

"There are days when I feel like it's going to be tomorrow. There are days when I feel like it's going to be never," Gosling said. "If I talk to the lawyers involved in the Microsoft case, I always come back completely horrified, (thinking) if we ever do this, we're screwed."

The open-source debate over Java is nothing new. Gosling and others at the company acknowledge that discussion started long before the growing popularity of the open-source Linux operating system caused a commotion in the industry. But the debate has heated up recently, Gosling said.

Rob Gingell, chief engineer at Sun and chairman of the JCP program, said an argument erupted via e-mail about a month ago among about 100 Sun field engineers who work with customers. On the open-source question, they wondered, "Why don't we just say yes?" But he said that on further examination, he realized that they were referring more to the open-source style of development than the intellectual property issues associated with open-source.

Gosling said he didn't become swayed that Java was ready for open-source until about a year ago, and he said he's not convinced he's right. He said he has made his opinion known internally for quite some time, although he hasn't made a point of discussing his views publicly.

"We actually do open-source a lot of stuff - but not the core bits," Gosling said. "And we've talked about slicing up the core so that some of it's open-source, and by and large, that isn't an easier problem than doing the whole thing."

Schwartz said the online community that Sun introduced last week is "filled to the gills with open-source projects with Java." He also said that he, Gosling and others just published the Java Research License, which allows more open-source development on core parts of Java.

"Anyone who wants to experiment with core parts of Java - everything under the guts of the (virtual machine), the language constructs themselves - is more than welcome to do so," Schwartz said. "But they can't introduce them into the commercial domain."

Gosling, too, is well aware of the potential pitfalls if Sun takes the open-source step. "Open-source ways of dealing with software work really well so long as you get this sort of collegial atmosphere," he said. "If you happen to have a bully on the block who is really strong, it doesn't work."