Did the good Larry or bad Larry buy Java?

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is making nice, promising to be a good daddy to Java. Should you take him at his word?

There's the good Larry and then there's the bad Larry. The bad Larry -- Oracle's Larry Ellison, that is -- ruthlessly snarfs up competitors, squeezes customers, and spits out employees by the thousands. Then there's the good Larry, the elegant, yacht-racing billionaire and bold fighter against the evil Microsoft empire. We saw the good Larry at JavaOne Tuesday, trotted out by his latest conquest to reassure the Java loyalists that their cherished software has landed in good hands.

Did he succeed? Not entirely. To be sure, his talk was well-received; many of the 4,000 or so developers and IT types who packed a hall in San Francisco's Moscone Center gave him a standing ovation. But there's still a good deal of nervousness, and competitors are firing shots across his bow in an effort to show that the $7.4 billion acquisition of Sun Microsystems doesn't mean that Oracle will control Java.

[ See InfoWorld's full coverage of events from the 2009 JavaOne conference | Keep up with app dev issues and trends with InfoWorld's Fatal Exception and Strategic Developer blogs. ]

Is this the end of JavaOne?
"[Ellison's talk] was too vague, it didn't give me enough clues," said Verient developer Vikram Nagpurkar as the hall emptied. And he wasn't alone in noticing an interesting omission in Ellison's talk: the future of JavaOne.

In a brief Q&A on the stage, Sun chairman Scott McNealy asked Ellison if this year's show was to be the last. Though Ellison made reassuring statements ("We see increased investments in Java coming from the Sun-Oracle combination and an expansion of the overall community and we're very excited about that"), he did not answer McNealy's question. And while the show is apparently on the Moscone calendar for next year, the reservation was likely made some time ago and could later be deleted.

Developer Srdjan Pantic said he's worried about the future of Java under Oracle. "No one really know what they'll do. Maybe they'll split the code base," he said.

Still, it would be wrong to overstate the concern of the open source community. Navica CEO Bernard Golden says he's not overly worried because "a huge number of Oracle-based systems are written in Java -- not to mention the fact that Oracle itself uses Java very heavily in its infrastructure components. Java is crucial to Oracle's future, yet Java requires a community far larger than just Oracle to be successful. If Oracle tried to mishandle Java, it would inevitably find itself abandoned by other Java users, leaving it solely responsible for carrying the language -- a burden far too large for any single company. In a way, Oracle is trapped by the success of Java."

What's more, there's obviously a reservoir of affection for Sun and pioneers like James Gosling, who gave a demo of Sun's new Java App Store and was rewarded with a good round of applause. Also well-received were references to JavaFX (Sun's entrant in the rich Internet application space) and Ellison's pledge of support for the product family.

Could a Java foundation be on the horizon?
Sun's stewardship of Java has come under criticism for some time. "Sun has arguably sat on Java way too long and too hard and developers have moved to subpar languages (hello, Ruby calling) rather than go through the J2EE nightmare," MuleSource founder Dave Rosenberg said in an e-mail exchange.

And because there are fears that Oracle might be even more heavy-handed, at least one Sun competitor (which asked not to be named) is quietly floating a proposal to establish a Java foundation that could be modeled after the successful Eclipse Foundation. Such a foundation would put control of Java in the hands of a representative sample of companies that support open source and serve as a counterbalance to Oracle.

As I walked the halls at JavaOne and later queried a few sources, I heard some support for that proposal, but also confusion over how a Java foundation would differ from the existing Java Community Process. "It's a good idea. It would allow Java to be its own entity and not be completely dominated by Oracle," said a Sandia Labs developer. But others reacted similarly to Golden, who said, "I don't think it's a bad idea, but I don't feel it's necessary."

As the conference got under way, Red Hat issued a lengthy and somewhat impenetrable press release about its Open Choice platform. Analyst Dennis Byron of Research 2.0 and ITBusinessEdge decoded it rather well, posting a blog with the headline: "Red Hat to Oracle: You Don't Own Java." Red Hat is reminding the world that it has a Java-based stack and would be happy to have your business if Oracle doesn't play ball.

I think Oracle has too much to lose to mess up Java. But the transition is likely to be bumpy -- and very interesting.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.