Sun is just "months" away from releasing its trademark Java programming language under an open-source licence.
That's according to Simon Phipps, chief open-source officer for Sun, who said the company is ruminating over two major issues: how to keep Java compatible and how to ensure no particular company uses market forces as muscle for its own implementation - a move that would threaten Java's "write once, run anywhere" mantra.
"Maintaining both of those dimensions of compatibility is imperative because the Java market is a huge successful open market in which many companies are serving many other companies," Phipps said.
"You wouldn't want to introduce a change that made Java less compatible in any way."
Sun announced in May it would release an open-source version of Java, about a month after Jonathan Schwartz replaced Scott McNealy as chief executive officer. The leadership change pushed the issue of whether to open source Java, to how to make the transition, Phipps said.
The move won't be easy, said a former Sun employee. The company has a rigid old guard of middle managers who have opposed open sourcing Java, said Denese Cooper, who worked on open-source projects at Sun for six years and is on the board of the Open Source Initiative.
"What they have to do in order to make it work is either retarget or somehow indoctrinate these people who have been guarding the gates against the viable open sourcing of Java for all these years," Cooper said. "It's going to be interesting to see what other moves they will have to make to make that happen."
Phipps said the key to maintaining compatibility will lie in licensing and governance, two areas under discussions. As of yet, no decisions have been made.
"I wouldn't pretend to know what the answer is for what combination of licensing and governance to use, " Phipps said.
In the short term, Phipps said making Java open source wouldn't have much of an effect on the company. Longer range, Sun would stand to benefit from more innovation with the platform and broader adoption.
Many observers say Sun's moves are late, as Microsoft Corp. has gained ground with its own .NET and C# programming languages.
Brian Behlendorf, co-founder of the Apache Web Server Project, said Sun and Java would have benefited earlier from distributed debugging and innovation plus a better reputation for reliability, especially on the server side.
"I think had they done it, they would have established Java further as the language of choice by so many more people," Behlendorf said.
One area that will need to change is the Java Community Process (JCP), whereby Java standards are set, a prominent free software developer said.
The JCP is too secretive and restrictive, said Dalibor Topic, who leads the Kaffe project, which has been working for years on an open-source version of Java.
"I do not value spending my time wrestling with Sun's legal department to find out if I can talk about something with my peers," he wrote in an e-mail, soon after Sun announced plans to open source Java.
Sun's talk of delivering an open-source version of Java ignores that fact that open-source Java runtimes and compatibility test suites already exist, he said.
"Basically, we've already come 90 percent of the way towards having several full, compatible, free software Java 1.5 implementations, without Sun's support," Topic said. "I don't think that Sun would like to promote the message that open source Java has, for the most part, already been done, without them contributing."
(Robert McMillan in San Francisco contributed to this story.)