Saturday, October 23, 2010

Learning from the active debates on Open Source

Several interesting debates regarding the future of "Open Source" are currently underway. I'm more than just an interested observer, since I'm a committer in Derby, an Apache open source project. However, I think that these discussions are interesting for anyone who is interested in software and how it is developed.

Firstly, there is the discussion over the future of Java, where there have been multiple developments during 2010, including:

  • Oracle's purchase of Sun

  • Oracle's suit against Google's Android software

  • The upcoming JCP elections and the changes underway to the JCP

  • Apple pulling back from Java

I've covered a lot of these events on my blog earlier; here's a couple of follow-ups with some recent news:

  • Regarding Apple's position on Java, James Gosling posted a short essay last night. In it, he points to the recent article on, as well as to the on-going SoyLatte project to provide an OpenJDK port to Mac OS X. According to the article, Steve Jobs defended Apple's decision by saying:

    Sun (now Oracle) supplies Java for all other platforms. They have their own release schedules, which are almost always different than ours, so the Java we ship is always a version behind. This may not be the best way to do it.

    and that seems like a very valid and reasonable perspective, from Apple's point of view. But it's still not clear to me what alternative there will be: will Oracle be providing Java for Mac OS X? Is Apple hoping/expecting that the community will provide Java for Mac OS X? As Gosling notes, "in the early days, they were insistent on doing the port themselves", but Apple seems to be saying very little in this area right now, leaving a big void where people are trying to guess what will happen.

  • Regarding the JCP elections, Doug Lea, one of the most active and most important researchers in the Java world, has placed a short letter online describing his perspective on the current Java situation, and why he has decided not to run for re-election to the JCP, but rather to devote his efforts to the OpenJDK process:

    I believe that the JCP is no longer a credible specification and standards body, and there is no remaining useful role for an independent advocate for the academic and research community on the EC.


    I cannot recommend to anyone that they use the JCP JSR process, as opposed to some other group/organization/body, to gain consensus for proposed specifications. So I expect to see fewer submissions as people begin to realize that other venues provide
    better opportunities.

    When I saw the JCP ballot, I was surprised to see that Professor Lea was not running, as he has been an extremely visible and popular member of that community for many years, so it is quite interesting to see how things look from his point of view.

  • Stephen Colebourne posts another short essay about the JCP elections here.

Another big discussion in recent weeks has been the Android-versus-the-world discussion. First we had Oracle's lawsuit versus Google regarding the development of Android. Then, this week, we had the big debate about whether Android itself is open or not, and what that might mean, fueled by Steve Job's 5 minute speech/comments at the Apple quarterly earnings announcement, and some rather unusual responses from the Android developer team (tweeting your build instructions (!) ).

For a fairly independent perspective, Joe Hewitt has a very well-written essay on his web log about what it means to be open, fueled by years of his experience working with the Mozilla Foundation, which is definitely one of the most open development processes around. Hewitt says:

I cut my teeth in the software industry working on the Mozilla open source project, so when I hear others talk about openness, but see them omitting important facets like a public source tree and outsider commit privileges, my bullshit radar goes off. Mozilla's commitment to openness is about as genuine as you can possibly get, but then, the world of desktop browsers is hard to compare with the world of mobile operating systems. If Firefox had required subsidies and advertising to reach 20% market share, Mozilla may have had to make compromises too.

From my point of view, I agree with Hewitt that what makes "open source" open is all about the process, not about the code. My experience has been primarily with the Apache Software Foundation, and specifically with the Derby project, but I think that most Apache projects are broadly similar. The best description of the Apache process, I believe, is found on their web site: How the ASF works. I'd particularly highlight this aspect:

The Apache projects are managed using a collaborative, consensus-based process. We do not have a hierarchical structure. Rather, different groups of contributors have different rights and responsibilities in the organization.

This, fundamentally, is what distinguishes a process such as Linux, Mozilla, or Apache, from efforts such as the JCP or Android. Tweeting your build instructions is definitely not an open source process, and Rubin should know better than to claim it is; neither does your choice of license, by itself, define an open source process: although Android uses the Apache license, Android is not an Apache project.

Although I had other reasons (I'm fascinated by DBMS internals; I needed to use the software for several internal projects) for getting involved in Derby, one of the reasons that I got involved was to learn about open source development and about the Apache process. It's been a very interesting experience, and I recommend it to every developer. There are a wealth of open source projects out there: find one that interests you, and get involved. Learn about the process, learn about how open source development works. You won't regret the investment of time; it will make you a better software developer.

Anyway, as I said to start, they are interesting discussions. Hopefully the links and pointers give you something worth reading for your weekend.

On an unrelated note, I'm off to Canada for a 4 day business trip.

Posting will be light; I'm hoping the rain will be light as well :)

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