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Battle of the Titans

Battle of the Titans

Welcome one and all to this month's dose of nonsense and trivia from the world of Java. December was a rather fun-filled month, with many things happening that will affect us all in the near future. I'm sure you've all heard about the controversy with Sun and IBM. But more on that later. Can't be getting into heavy stuff this early on. I have to ease myself into it gently!

December saw me in New York, hosting SYS-CON Radio with my esteemed colleague, Keith Douglas, at the Java Business Conference. We conducted a marathon of radio interviews, talking to a vast array of different companies from all over the planet. Well, I say planet, but let's be honest: the majority of them came from the inner sanctum of the Valley. I guess that's still the place to go if you intend running a tech-based company. That said, many observations were made at the show, so let me share some of them with you.

One of the more comical phrases I heard was that this was the East Coast version of JavaOne. Ha! Wishful thinking, methinks. For a start, there simply wasn't the number of people. Hardly anyone turned up. After the show ended, we got to talking to one of the ZD-Net conference organizers, who shall remain nameless, but she said that it was a big disappointment all around...nowhere near the expected number of people turned out. So why the low footfall?

A variety of possible reasons were discussed. One was oversaturation. An XML show was hosted in the same week, while a week later an e-commerce show was going to be held in the same venue. People simply can't attend them all. I think that's definitely a contributing factor, but personally I think it's all gotten rather....The pizazz of the Java revolution is beginning to wane. I think people are getting bored - and you know what? I don't blame them.

We spent a whole week talking, listening, interviewing and generally networking with companies from all walks of the industry. But none of them had anything exciting. I'm sorry if that sounds harsh, but compared to the JavaOnes of yore, no company had anything exciting or remotely cool to show off. I'm sure I'm going to get a whole raft of e-mails from companies complaining that this is a bit dramatic, but I'm sticking to what I said. Any company that makes an application server or virtual machine need not apply. I guess that wipes out the majority of complaints!

Seriously, talk about jumping on a bandwagon. Everyone and their dog seem to be producing an application server. Okay, chaps, I think the market is saturated enough now, so if you're on the verge of announcing a new application server, save it. The world doesn't need it. Have you seen the number of solutions available? It's madness. The only reason I think we're seeing a serious surge in this new market is money.

Java-based companies are finding it increasingly difficult to make money. Application servers are the only way they feel they can place high-ticket price tags on pieces of software. In an industry that's hell-bent on giving away software, the justification to charge for it is becoming increasingly hard. The reality is that we're in this game to make money, and "free" simply doesn't pay the rent.

This leads me to my next observation regarding a company and an individual that I think are letting us all down. Oh, but that reminds me. Let me thank those of you who came up to me and expressed kindness regarding this column. It was much appreciated. That said, would you believe I was accused by one gentleman of becoming soft? Soft? I ask you. He commented that of late I hadn't attacked any company. Well, for the record, this is something I don't do just to fill column space. If a company is in the wrong, I merely bring it to the attention of the world at large.

If a company has done well, I do the same thing. It's just that people always seem to remember the bad news as opposed to the praise. Funny how human nature works.

But let me give the companies of this industry advance warning: I'm a'comin' to get you. We're about to conduct a major test of the support this industry provides. We'll contact all the big names and some of the smaller ones, asking for help on their products. Don't worry. We won't be using our real names - wouldn't want you giving me any special treatment just because I'm a JDJ columnist. That wouldn't be fair to the normal developer. It'll be very revealing, and the good news is that you'll be able to hear some of the more interesting help through our Straight Talking radio show. Each month I'll update you on our findings. Our aim is to raise the standard of support in the Java world.

Okay, now that I've given you advance warning, back to the thread of conversation we were on before I drifted.

As you know, pre-Christmas '99 we had a major falling out of two of the largest companies in the Java industry, Sun and IBM. A severe case of toys being thrown out of the pram and storming off in a huff, taking all the toys with them. Sun may be playing a dangerous game, and may already be alienating developers.

A Bit of Background
Essentially, there was a move to have Java's future controlled by a consortium of companies as opposed to just one, Sun. IBM was a major player in this consortium, and was keen to move forward with this. Sun, however, became increasingly nervous, and one week into December said they would be pulling out of this initiative. IBM retaliated by announcing that there may be a version of Java that may not be compatible with the present one. A threat if ever I heard one. Sun then threw out the fact that 80% of the existing Java is tied up in legal copyright. But that leaves 20% that isn't. It takes only 1% for it to become noncompatible. A scary state of affairs, if you ask me.

At the time of this writing the position of the companies hadn't changed. I spoke to an IBM'er close to the action who stated that IBM didn't want to see more standards/names for Java. The latest Java Enterprise Edition hasn't impressed IBM, and they feel it's a step too far. I tend to agree with them. The whole version-numbering of Java has simply gotten out of hand, and something needs to be done. We have Java 2.0, but the actual release is 1.3. Talk about introducing confusion into an already version-happy world. Sun...sort it out.

So Sun doesn't want to relinquish control of Java. They want to control it all themselves, and want us to believe that it's in everyone's best interest to allow them to continue. Gee, this sounds familiar. Ring any bells?

The man who may have lost the respect of the development community is Scott McNealy. For a while he was the developer's friend, speaking out against the empire we all love to hate and giving us the resources to allow us to fight the onslaught of Microsoft. But he's gone and buggered up his power base by showing his true colors, which ironically seem to be the same shade as Mr. Gates's.

McNealy is famous for slandering Microsoft in his keynotes, and his constant attack on all things Gates was beginning to get boring. But from a man who once retorted he probably wouldn't do anything different if he were in Bill Gates's shoes, it looks as though he's setting himself up for this sort of power base. McNealy may end up as a man no longer to be trusted, and Java may no longer be safe in his hands. Let me illustrate why.

For years people have asked where Sun was making its money, and for years the standard answer was "from the sale of its servers." People were led to believe that Java would run faster on a Sun server than any other, so they'd flock to Sun, leaving other server manufacturers out in the cold.

If you've read the recent Sun book, you know this was the plan back in the beginning. Didn't quite work out like that. For a start, Sun's servers didn't outperform the competition in quite the way Sun had hoped. Also, the virtual machines offered by other vendors knocked the spots off Sun's own offering. So the original plan to make money from the sale of servers wasn't working out. Sun needed an income from Java.

Well, here's an idea. Since you control the fate of Java, why don't you charge people for using the name in their products? Nah, that would be like charging for the use of the word Internet in every product. Silly. Sound ridiculous? Well, guess what? That's what McNealy is doing. Yup, if you have a product that's compliant with the J2EE API, then you owe Mr. McNealy 3% of your profits. Tip of the iceberg. What else is Sun going to charge for? One cent for every download of your applet? As bizarre as that sounds, it's heading that way.

McNealy has gone and done the one thing he said he'd never do, and that is to charge for Java. If IBM plays this right, they could become the developer's new champion and take on a new version of Java that's both open and free.

I never thought I'd be throwing my support behind Big Blue, but Sun has lost my respect and they'll have to do an awful lot to get it back again. For a start, I no longer trust what McNealy tells me. They don't want to share the development of Java, and their belief that they're the only ones that can really do it justice will be Java's downfall. What I'd love to see is companies releasing products that are only 97% compatible - where the 3% is lost since they don't want to pay royalties on the use of a name.

Mailing List
With that I move on to the mailing list that's based on this column. We've been discussing this very subject in depth, and no one has posted any mail that supports Sun's stance. All have stated their feellings about what Scott McNealy is up to. It's good to hear your views on this and other topics of interest. Keep them coming and let us know what you think. I'd like to point out that we have a new list server in place, which means that the directions for signing up that I've given out in previous columns are no longer valid. We have a new Web-based system that makes it easier for everyone. Point your browser toward the URL http://listserv.n-ary.com/mailman/listinfo/straight_talking for all the details. It's easy and very quick. I look forward to hearing from you.

Alternatively, if you want to hear from me, then head along to http://radio.sys-con.com/ to hear the daily Straight Talking radio show. It's a mix of Java chat, music and a bit of insight into all sorts of useless and interesting trivia.

Salute of the Month
This month the salute goes to Bruno Decaudin and the SYS-CON Radio production team, who turned the interview sessions into one slick, well-oiled operation. Keith and I thank you for your efforts - we thoroughly enjoyed having you as part of the team and look forward to working with you at JavaOne.

On that note I'd better wind up this month's installment. The good news is that I think my Dolly Parton phase is weakening. I can't be too sure though, as I recently took delivery of a portable MP3 player, which means that Miss Parton goes with me to the gym as I continue my quest for the body beautiful. Oh dear, maybe I still have a long way to go!

More Stories By Alan Williamson

Alan Williamson is widely recognized as an early expert on Cloud Computing, he is Co-Founder of aw2.0 Ltd, a software company specializing in deploying software solutions within Cloud networks. Alan is a Sun Java Champion and creator of OpenBlueDragon (an open source Java CFML runtime engine). With many books, articles and speaking engagements under his belt, Alan likes to talk passionately about what can be done TODAY and not get caught up in the marketing hype of TOMORROW. Follow his blog, http://alan.blog-city.com/ or e-mail him at cloud(at)alanwilliamson.org.

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