Sun abandons Java standards effort

Sun Microsystems has officially abandoned its effort to standardise the Java programming language through a Swiss-based consortium, putting to an end over two years of attempts to turn over a core piece of the technology to an independent standards body.

In a late-afternoon press conference at the Java Business Conference, Sun's recently appointed president, Patricia Sueltz, took responsibility for the decision, saying her company needs to make sure Java implementations remain compatible to established specifications.

"We will remain the guardians of Java compatibility. Sun has a covenant to keep with the 2 million Java developers and over 200 licensees, and we're steadfast about controlling compatibility but not controlling the technology," Sueltz said.

Sun's latest standards effort, through Geneva-based ECMA (formerly known as the European Computer Manufacturers Association), hit a snag in late October when the company declined to turn over documents needed to move the process forward. Sun Vice President George Paolini cited ECMA's lack of written policies on trademark and copyright issues and claimed then that the company would seek to resolve the issue at a December 16 meeting of ECMA's general assembly.

Paolini earlier this week added that ECMA "seemed to not be supportive" of Sun's community process to evolve the technology, which the company argues is the best way to evolve Java while ensuring that innovations remain compatible to established specifications. Despite ECMA's insistence that it has no intention of evolving the technology, Paolini charged that ECMA member companies "intend to create expert groups that do evolve the technology."

"It's important to recognise that it's all too easy to subset the technology and fragment the platform if you don't have some assurance that you're going to maintain compatibility," Paolini said. "That's really what it's about. If any group were to publish a specification that were a variation or a subset on the standard and try to drive that as a standard, you're going to fragment the platform. That's the Unix wars all over again."

Although a wide range of companies are participating in Sun's community process, some vendors with expertise in certain Java technologies have balked at signing agreements they say give Sun too much control.

Prior to turning to ECMA, Sun tried to standardise Java through a special fast-track process with the International Standards Organisation (ISO). A rules dispute earlier this year prompted Sun to switch to ECMA, which turns over its standards to the ISO. Meanwhile, critics questioned Sun's sincerity about making Java an open standard, as it refused to cede control of even base levels of the technology to an independent standards body.

Some vendors expressed disappointment at the news that Sun would halt its formal Java standardization effort. "Any form of initiative to adopt open standards in the computing world has got to be good for the customers," said Simon Pepper, a senior product manager at Dublin-based Iona Technologies PLC, a Sun partner. But he added his company would continue to work with Sun, which "will have to work twice as hard to ensure that it's open."

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