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Developers and the Java Alliance
Developers and the Java Alliance

A question I have been asking myself lately is whether high-profile alliances of large corporations are actually the best way to advance the technology initiatives that shape our development environment and the products we build and use. It's fine and well that Sun, IBM, Netscape, Oracle, Sybase, Novell and others are working with one another to be the technology leaders of this new Java platform that we all care about. But how much does this alliance actually benefit you and me, and what are its potential drawbacks?

There have been several alliances in the recent past which have either failed to reach their goals or completely fallen apart due to the competition that has historically set the tone for the relationships between these major corporations. Java is not shielded from this reality and one doesn't need to look hard to see some of the pressure points! In most of these major alliances each of the big companies expects the others to shoulder the burden of making the alliance successful, though all seem happy enough to share the credit. As we witness Apple and Netscape falling by the wayside in the Java alliance, we should be aware that others may be just as vulnerable. Oracle and Sybase both have taken significant hits in their market valuation during recent months, and it will be much harder for them to be strong partners in the Java alliance if their fundamental markets are endangered.

The real problem with the big Java alliance is that the activities of the alliance partners are granted far too much significance, and the meaningful advances of anyone not in the alliance are too easily undervalued. The press and public look at events like Netscape's statement that JavaGator is "on hold" and conclude that Java itself must also be "on hold." It is as if they presume that since Netscape cannot succeed at what it tries to do, then the rest of us must not be able to either! Likewise, Corel's failure to deliver on its over-hyped effort was similarly damaging.

The world places far too much significance on these moments. Let's just imagine that Netscape had 500 developers focused on JavaGator and that Corel had a similar number working on their Java office suite. We'll guess that a total of 1000 Java developers were involved in these two projects. Let's also conjecture that the estimates of 600,000 to one million Java developers are somewhat overstated. Instead, we'll postulate that there are only 100,000 Java developers around the world.

OK, fine! In this scenario the 1000 developers on the Netscape and Corel projects account for only one percent of the world's Java developers! Should their amazingly publicized failures really have been able to cast such a long shadow of doubt over the activities of the overwhelming majority of the rest of us? No way!

The long term success or failure of Java will be measured by the efforts of tens of thousands of us, not just by the comparatively small groups represented by the alliance partners. I wish the world would stop looking at every move these big companies make as though it should give us all cause to reconsider our Java plans and directions. Their activities are significant, but there is a lot going on in the Java world beyond what the alliance is doing.

There's another level at which the highly publicized partnerships of major players should give us concern. Recently we heard about a partnership between Sun and cable-television giant, TCI. It appears that TCI will be adopting PersonalJava for as many as five million of its cable-TV set-top boxes. On the surface this is fantastic news for Java (and probably for TV viewers, too!). I searched for details, however, and as far as I can tell, this deal is great for those two big companies but it has yet to create opportunity for any of the rest of us. While five million boxes is virtually an "instant platform", I have not been able to find any useful information about how you or I can get our own Java innovations onto that new platform.

Then there is the "Motorola deal." Motorola has entered into a licensing agreement with Sun Microsystems, Inc. for the use and distribution of its full family of Java platform technologies. Additionally, both companies will cooperate to bring Motorola's embedded and communications expertise and technologies to the Java environment. Scott McNealy proclaimed this one as "the largest technology license agreement in the history of the Java platform." The power-punch of Java combined with Motorola's fantastic array of innovative technologies could truly reshape how we communicate.

It is essential, however, that these power players make sure to invite the rest of us to the party. Some of the greatest innovations come from the most unexpected places, and the true opportunity for Sun, Motorola and TCI is to create foundation technologies on which hundreds or thousands of innovative third-party solutions can be built. Java will shine its brightest in the near-future technology where wired and wireless smart devices are able to communicate with each other in a way that makes our lives richer, easier and more fun.

It will be a disaster if Sun, Motorola and TCI do not regard the significant example set by another technology partnership Motorola participated in: General Magic. Several of the mightiest firms in the world were involved in the General Magic alliance and that still was not enough to make it succeed. The problem was that they simply forgot to make sure to set a place at the table for developers who were not part of their alliance! They acted in a way that was typical of big companies doing big business deals in big partnerships with each other.

Java has remarkable strengths and a remarkably diverse foundation of support in the developer world. My hope is that the major industry players will set a good example for others to follow. I hope that Sun, IBM, Motorola, TCI and the rest will all make sure to have rich and open programs for third-party developers to help cultivate these emerging new platforms. Then the Java alliance will be truly complete. Developers are the key, and I hope we can all enjoy success working with the industry leaders.

About Rick Ross
Rick Ross is the founder of Javalobby (www.javalobby.org). He is a frequent speaker at Java-related events and a well-known advocate for Java developer interests.

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