This week, Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW ) said it will make its highly popular programming language, Java, available open-source. That is, anybody can download the code and make changes to it (subject to a variety of restrictions, of course). While this should help keep Java relevant, it is not enough to deal with the other problems the company faces in its core server business.
Java began as an internal project in 1990. However, by 1994, Sun thought it would be a great tool to help develop Web-based applications (originally, the goal was to focus on smart appliances).
Of course, it was a smart move, as Java became a standard. And over the years, the platform has proven to be quite versatile, helping to power mobile devices, robots, and even the Mars Rover.
Now, as an open-source offering, Java will conform to the so-called General Public License (GPL). This is what many other open-source software products, such as Linux, use. Basically, with GPL, if there are changes made to the code, then these must also be contributed on an open-source basis.
The hope is that this should allow for more innovation. That's the sentiment of the CEO and founder of Zimbra, Satish Dharmaraj. His company, which develops email systems, is built on open-source software (he was also on the original Java development team). "Sun's decision to open-source Java is great for the whole of the open-source community," he told me in an interview. "While there's probably been as much open-source work in Java as in any other programming environment, up until now it's also been a bit of a sticking point that the underlying Java platform was not itself open-source."
But will any of this make a difference for Sun's bottom line? Probably not much -- at least in the near term. I recently spoke with Mike Kwatinetz, a general partner at Azure Capital, and he said this is something that Sun should have done "several years ago when Java reigned supreme." He went on to say: "Now Sun's move is reactive. Zend has surpassed Java in new commercial website development, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) has stemmed the tide and Java is losing ground."
However, the fact remains that the success of Sun hinges greatly on its server business. And the good news is that the company has been regaining momentum in that business. But, of course, the competition -- such as Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) , Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) , and IBM (NYSE: IBM ) -- will remain intense. In other words, to succeed, Sun will need to continue to use "new thinking" in its approaches.
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