Sun Microsystems at its JavaOne conference on Tuesday announced that it would open-source Java but added that before it does so, company officials have to be certain the move won't lead to diverging paths in the code.
Richard Green, Sun's executive vice president of software, made it absolutely clear that Java would be open-sourced.
"It isn't a question of whether, it is a question of how," Green said to cheers from the developers on hand for JavaOne.
To give the announcement extra weight, Green described the plan in response to questions from Sun's new CEO, Jonathan Schwartz. The two men were on stage at the Moscone Center when the announcement was made.
The company did not set a schedule for when the open-source release would take place and said some problems first have to be resolved.
"There are two battling forces here: there is the desire to completely open this up, complete access - and so many changes in the licences have been made that it's virtually all there," said Green, referring to the licensing models now available to developers. He also said compatibility is a major issue with the planned move. "I don't think anybody wants to see a diverging Java platform," Green said, arguing that one of the "great values" of Java is that the company has been able to avoid divergence and ensure consistency.
The challenge now, he said, is how to solve those issues. "I'm going to sign up big time to go figure that out."
Michael Goulde, an analyst with Forrester Research, said the move by Sun is not a shock since the company has been taking steps in that direction, even as it has argued that it wants to maintain compatibility and prevent code forking. "All along, they've given that as one of the arguments for not doing it, so it's going to be interesting to see what they'll do," Goulde said. "It's something people in the open-source community have been harping on for a long time, so it's almost anti-climactic at this point. The devil's in the details. There's a lot of things they need to think about - under what licence, how the community will be structured and organised."
One other benefit, he said, is that it could help further accelerate the already abundant innovation around Java. The move by Sun will also address a longstanding irritant in the open-source community - that "it's a little bit awkward working with something that's not open-source to create open-source software," he said.
"Things were just a little out of sync - a disturbance in the force."
Joe Poole, manager for technical support at US department store chain Boscov's, said the Sun news is particularly good if it helps get Java more settled; sometimes his programmers tell him that the different versions of Java don't maintain adequate compatibility, which causes headaches.
The company uses Java in its website, as well as JBoss and Apache applications.
The Sun announcement could mean a wider Java use for Boscov's, he said. "We're big users of open-source and if they do that, our programmers will jump on it and give it a shot," Poole said.
Todd R Weiss contributed to this story.