Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why Java needs Oracle

By filing a patent lawsuit against Google over its Java-like implementation, Oracle probably made itself the world's least liked software company. After all, Java itself is an open standard, open source platform that is ill-served by exclusive legal claims, right? Yet perversely, I think this patent lawsuit demonstrates why Java needs Oracle.

The reality is that software patents exist. Neither Oracle nor Google can wish them away, so they both participate in the corporate patent dance. Oracle has a massive patent portfolio but it publicly opposes the very idea of software patents. And for all its bluster about openness, Google patented its simplistic text field + 2 buttons search page. Corporations accumulate patents as a defensive measure. And the ones that really matter are the Old Ones.

In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver encountered the struldbrug: immortal humans. After the age of 80, they lost their property and were not allowed to make money nor buy land. The reasoning was that if they were left to their own devices, over time they would end up owning the entire country. Something like that has happened with our companies. They may not be old in absolute terms, but they are old in man-years. Thousands of employees multiplied by years of work have accumulated patents for the corporate portfolio. The Old Ones are the superpowers of the software world, having accumulated massive patent portfolios through the struldbrug effect. You probably know their names: IBM with almost 5000 patents, Microsoft with almost 3000 patents, though most of the big patent holders are hardware companies. Oracle and Sun were also Old Ones with a few hundred patents each: now merged, they probably comprise the no. 3 patent holder in the software world.

The Old Ones tend not to battle one another with patents. The Cold War gave us the notion of mutually assured destruction. Similarly, if any of our technology superpowers decide to unload their patent portfolios at each other, the effect would be devastating to both. The uncertainty and cost of years of litigation would be prohibitive even for them. The combination of cash and their patent arsenal allows them to protect their own technology ventures. This was demonstrated by Sun's confrontation with Microsoft, as recounted by Sun's former CEO Jonathan Schwartz. The confrontation essentially went like this:

Microsoft: You know, OpenOffice violates a bunch of our office software patents. Mighty fine office suite you have there. It would be a shame if something happened to it. You might want to pay us some protection money ... I mean, royalty.

Sun: You know, .NET violates a bunch of our Java patents. Mighty fine runtime you have there. It would be a shame if something happened to it.

Quiet threats, a standoff, and that was the end of that. Nobody hears about these confrontations. That is how the Old Ones operate.

But sometimes patents alone are not enough. That same blog post described how Eastman Kodak bought an obscure Wang patent specifically to sue Sun over Java. Kodak was not in the same industry, so Sun's patents were not relevant. Sun ultimately had to pay $100 million to appease Kodak.

My point is that for a platform like Java to succeed, you need an Old One with money and patents to sponsor and protect it. Certainly, Microsoft would be happy to shut down a rival platform like Java if they could. Conversely, it took a company like Microsoft to build a comparable rival platform to Java. There are other technologies out there, but in the commercial software space the ones that matter are still Java and .NET. If a truly viable third candidate emerges, I expect it will either need a sponsor or get stomped into oblivion (legally speaking).

Could Google be Java's sponsor? Google's patent collection is still too limited to make it an Old One, but it is rich. But as I see it, Google is simply not committed to Java as a platform. While it contributed innovations, Google's participation in the Java platform has been opportunistic and incoherent. Its major initiatives like GWT, App Engine and Android have no common core, and it happily invented the incompatible language Go. Google is a one-company Java fragmentation engine. Google will not be hurt if Java dies or fractures.

Java itself succeeded because of Sun's corporate backing. Today, Java still needs a sponsor, and that appears to be Oracle. It was either Oracle or IBM: two Old Ones who are very much invested in Java's success. Both vied to acquire Sun, and the decision was made for us. For better or for worse, Oracle is now Java's champion and protector. The legal landscape is too dangerous out there for a major platform to be without one.


  1. Very Nice reading, With a great perspective you present this. I agree with all of what you said its right, Java needs Oracle.

    We would like to have Java as an ISO or true Open Standard but as you said that could be Java Oblivion.

  2. Great post and good arguments.

  3. Nice post. I've responded in a few places that I see it purely as a means to an end. Java and Android are a great combo and together the possibilities appear endless.

  4. I think that protection is assured by owning patents. Using them, as Oracle is doing, has nothing to do with protection. Oracle wants to monetize, no matter what we think about them.

  5. lacks only the jdk7 se for Embedded (like phones) MIDP was killed

  6. Good Post ! It really sheds light into a perspective which is often not seen when considering Oracle's acquisition of Sun.

    Thanks for the post.

  7. Oracle isn't protecting java, it's killing it. Android was a viable alternative in the mobile space to the jail of iOS, and breathe fresh mobile air into java programmers laps. Oracle strode up and stomped on it. This is NOTHING like what MS was trying to do in terms of fracturing Java...that's total BS, and I can only presume you are getting paid by Oracle to write such crap. Just because Google invented another language, doesn't mean they are trying to bring down Java. Java is an old language missing a lot of great features that a new breed of languages are filling...closures, etc... I don't see how filing a proactive law suite against a company who is leveraging at least the language of Java, is in anyway supportive of that eco-system. You live in a world where up is down, good is bad, and pro-active patent attacks is somehow good for innovation.

  8. @en
    "Oracle wants to monetize, no matter what we think about them."

    I see it as preventing a fork of Java. Google is the bad guy in this game. They made an incompatible fork and try to establish it under a new name, that means they try to steal Java.

  9. Money, Money, Money ... makes the world. Nobody needs Oracle for Java and articles outside from the reality.

  10. No doubt that Oracle wants to monetize on Java (like everything)

    But... BigO has alienated the community.. see test server for Postgres then open solaris... and java/JVM/JDK 7!! will we ever see it? with some useful news features?

    Google the bad guy?
    Android is having success where Java Me failed, With Apache on the tech side Google has the economic/media power to sucessfully fork Java and be the knight the kill the Oracle Ogre.... but i don't think is interested :(

    In conclusion... i hope that someone else take over Java (or a fork of it) from Oracle.... Google/Apache would be perfect!!!

  11. I liked the article, it's really positive. Those who support Google, really support open source, but Google is not open source. Google uses open source for their defense, but does it mean they can be allowed to break patents?

  12. There is a huge problem in Oracle's stratergy. Patent's don't cover software programs. The problem is that most judges can't tell the diffrence between a patent and a copyright lawsuit. If I was the judge I would dismiss without prejudice and hope Oracle figures out its lawyers need to be paid less.

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