Sun SPOT technology set for open source

Sun is set to open-source everything related to SPOT, from hardware to software, but a user questions Sun's commitment to the technology

Sun is expected to announce next week that it will make the Sun SPOT (Small Programmable Object Technology) device platform available via open source, but a user expressed concerns about Sun's commitment to the technology.

Sun SPOT is a Java-based experimental platform intended to enable development of products like wireless sensors, robotics, and communication devices. The open-sourcing is expected to be made official at the Java Mobile & Embedded Developer Days Conference in Santa Clara, Calif., which is being held January 23-24.

"In this case, I think what's a little bit different is it's not just open-sourcing just the Sun SPOT code," said Roger Brinkley, mobile and embedded community leader at Sun. "It's everything related to Sun SPOT. It's the hardware, it's the software."

Included in the open source endeavor would be the Squawk virtual machine featured as part of Sun SPOT. Through the open-source move, Sun hopes to attract more developers to Sun SPOT. "The open-sourcing allows a lot more extension and development to occur," Brinkley said.

The plan calls for Sun SPOT to be offered under the GNU General Public License version 2, which means derivatives of GPL code and code that is combined with it must be redistributed. Sun, however, previously has permitted use of the "ClassPath" exception to the GPL, which enables combining of proprietary code with GPL ClassPath libraries without the need to redistribute proprietary code.

Contacted afterward, Sun SPOT user Bruce Boyes, president of Systronix, lauded the technology but had concerns about Sun's commitment to it. By classifying the technology as experimental, Sun shows no published commitment to make it available for any period of time commercially, he said. Systronix has been trying to get a commercial license for two years, he said.

 "SPOT is a very cool educational and experimental device. We'd like it to become a great commercial and industrial device too. Systronix would like to help make that happen," Boyes said. Systronix is using Sun SPOT in robots, which could be networked and potentially be used in applications, such as roaming of airports to provide security. "We use the Sun SPOT as the application brain," said Boyes.

He also expressed concerns about the GPL, which has requirements that can place limits on its use in commercial ventures since software involving it has to be contributed back to the open-source arena. "Open-sourcing would be most interesting if there was a reasonable path to a commercial license," Boyes said.

In response, Sun released a statement from Roger Meike, a senior director of Sun Microsystems Labs.

"Our objective is to expand the market for Java in embedded devices.  The first step is to inspire people with flexible, easy-to-use devices and software designed to inspire students, researchers and hobbyists, thus the Sun SPOTs," Meike said. "As the market develops we plan to license technology to those who can benefit from our work just as we have getting Java on well over 1 billion cell phones.

"Our decision to open source Sun SPOT software under a GPL V2 license reflects our commitment to build a community of developers.  Commercial interests will often want a different license and we encourage them to discuss this with us.  Because this is a new, emerging market, the first commercial licenses may be unique and somewhat time consuming to work out.  We are currently working with Systronix and a handful of others to help them achieve their business objectives and to help us develop our business model around Project Sun SPOT.  As more businesses ask to license Sun SPOT technology, the process may be streamlined."

In other happenings at next week's conference, application developers in the mobile and embedded space will get together to learn about different topics ranging from virtual machines to mobile clients. Presentations will be done by representatives from such companies as Nokia, Intel and, of course, Sun. James Gosling, CTO of Sun's Client Software who is widely considered the father of Java, will give a keynote presentation on Wednesday.

Java, according to to Sun, is on 95 percent of mobile phones shipped today. Sun makes money off of mobile and embedded Java through commercial licenses that feature support services.

One topic that is not expected to get a lot of play at the event is Sun's JavaFX and JavaFX Mobile technology. The JavaFX platform, featuring JavaFX Mobile, is intended to provide a consistent and graphical user experience on systems ranging from desktops to mobile devices and other systems. More on JavaFX will be aired at the JavaOne conference in May in San Francisco, a Sun insider said.

Currently, Sun's new acquisition, MySQL, maker of the open source database of the same name, has not been factored into Sun's mobile plans, according to Brinkley. Sun agreed to acquire MySQL this week for $1 billion, with the deal expected to close later this quarter or early in the next quarter.

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