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Will Sun be last to join the Linux party?

March 13, 1999
Web posted at: 1:48 p.m. EST (1848 GMT)

by Steven Brody

SAN FRANCISCO (IDG) -- Sun Microsystems has announced that it has licensed its Java Mediatechnologies to the Linux Blackdown Porting Team, an informal group of Linux developers.

The move is Sun'slatest in what has been a comparatively cautious embrace of the open source operating system.

The agreement enables the team to develop and distribute media-enhanced applications for the Java 2 platformfor non-commercial use, as specified by Sun's Community Source Licensing program. Any commercialproducts would require a second commercial license, which would entitle Sun to royalty payments.

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According to Sun, this marks the first time Linux developers will be able to create platform-independent, network-centricapplications for educational, business, and technical users with the Java Media APIs. The Blackdown group has had afunctional version of Java 2 (formerly JDK 1.2) since November of last year, but has not yet passed Sun's Java compatibilitytests, required before the port can be released.

The Java Media APIs licensed to the Blackdown group include:

  • Java 3DI -- an object-oriented interface for applications that require interactive 3D graphics

  • Java Media Framework -- a collection of classes that enable the display and capture of multimedia data within applets and applications written in the Java programming language

  • Java Advanced Imaging -- an API that incorporates performance-oriented features such as tiling, deferred execution, optimization of combined operations, resolution-independent image processing, multithreading, and support for multidimensional, multibanded image data types

  • Java Sound -- an API that provides low-level support for audio operations such as audio mixing, audio capture, MIDI sequencing, and MIDI synthesis

Playing it safe: Sun steps lightly around Linux

Although Sun continues to pay Linux a fair amount of lip service, licensing Java APIs to a Linux developers group is anythingbut a high-risk proposition. While IBM and HP have been working to place themselves in the front seat as Linux's popularitysoars, Sun has yet to commit to a comprehensive service or development agreement with any of the major Linux vendors.

"We see the open source community as something of a pot-luck, and we think IBM and HP are showing up to the partyempty-handed," said Brian Croll, director of marketing for Solaris. "For now we are trying to figure out what we have to offerLinux, and what Linux has to offer us."

IBM, Compaq, Novel, and Oracle seem to know exactly what they have to offer: money. Red Hat Software Inc., the leadingU.S. Linux vendor has announced that the four computer giants will take minority equity positions in Red Hat. Sun,meanwhile, is taking things slowly.

In December 1998, Sun touted efforts to work with Linux developers to enhance a port for the OS to Sun's UltraSPARCarchitecture, as a show of support for Linux and a blow to Microsoft in the form of Unix solidarity. Other somewhat lukewarmendorsements of Linux by Sun include the tuning of the Lxrun Linux emulator for Solaris, and an announcement that SunMicroelectronics will be offering UltraSPARC AXi boards packaged with Linux -- but with support to be offered by thirdparties only.

Sun's decision to prepare its Linux strategy before charging ahead may be prudent, according to industry analysts. IBM and HPhave both been criticized by analysts for failing to integrate Linux clearly into their Unix strategies. When HP inked a deal withRed Hat to offer Linux support, think-tank Zona Research issued a bulletin suggesting that HP was confusing customers byoffering an OS to compete with HP-UX on IA-64.

An adoption of Linux could put Sun's OS strategy in a similar quandary, with, according to Sun, Solaris for Merced only as faroff as IA-64 itself. Furthermore, with Solaris as perhaps the leading Unix operating system, says Martin Marshall, industryanalyst at Zona, Sun isn't motivated to endorse another OS.

The company's strategy with respect to Linux is made more complicated by the prospect of releasing Solaris source code.Access to source code is cited by Linux users as one of the key reasons for preferring the OS.

Rumors have run rampant that Sun intends to open Solaris, but the company has confirmed only that the possibility is beingconsidered.

"If we opened Solaris -- and this is a big 'if' -- the goal would be to help the entire open source community," said Sun's Croll."We want to make sure that the world and the Internet are overrun by open protocols. Microsoft's model is to keep theprotocols closely guarded, but we would benefits from open standards."

Opening Solaris could have other, more direct benefits for Sun, said Marshall. Sun could benefit from the same high-turnaroundbug fixes and support provided by developers for developers in the open source community. Sun, said Marshall, spends hugesums on providing support and maintenance for Solaris. The same effect could potentially be achieved by opening up parts ofthe OS and sponsoring discussion sites for developers.

Sun may yet have more time to approach Linux, as it is not the only company that has still to join the Linux party. Softwaregiant PeopleSoft recently told the press it is simply not seeing sufficient customer interest to justify the development of Linuxports.

"Linux isn't going to eat the world," said Marshall. "We expect it to grow as a healthy percentage of itself, but it is still just apimple on the overall software market."

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Java Media Framework API
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