R. Fink | The Packet Rat: Change at Sun generates light, but how much heat?

The 'sudden' shift of Scott McNealy's job at Sun Microsystems Inc. caught few people by surprise'considering McNealy's pending departure from the CEO's chair had been run up the flagpole by Wall Street analyst Mark Stahlman. Heck, the Rat heard a year ago that McNealy was headed for the door'and for most of the 20 years before that.

Yet McNealy's retirement from day-to-day operations'he's still Sun's chairman and head of Sun Federal Inc.'does open the door for many other 'sudden' things to happen now that Jonathan 'CEOs-can-wear-ponytails-again' Schwartz has assumed command. The question is, Will they?

It was Schwartz who pledged to eventually open-source all of Sun's software portfolio (at least, he stated that as a goal). Schwartz got Solaris through the gantlet from free to open-source, and now the bets are on that he'll do the same for Java.

Former Sun executive VP of software John Loiacono often stepped up to pile caveats onto Schwartz's pronouncements. 'But he's now gone,' noted the Rat as he read the latest news from the Left Coast to his acolytes. 'And he's gone to one of the last places in Silicon Valley that's safe from open source'Adobe.'

That means that there's no one but lawyers standing between Schwartz and an open-source Java'especially since the other main intellectual-property supplier to Java (IBM Corp.) has been begging for it for some time.

'Whoopee, open-source Java,' the whiskered one pronounced, one digit circling sarcastically in the air. 'Maybe nobody told them about JBoss or Geronimo?'

The remarkable thing about Java is that while the technology has won the Infrastructure Wars with Microsoft Corp. on many fronts, Sun has never really been successful in marketing its own particular flavor of the write-once-run-many-places software brew. In fact, despite many alleged downloads of its Java System Application Server'for free'there seems to have been little impact on the Java server market as a result.

'In other words, they can't even give it away,' the cyberrodent sighed.

So now, as JavaOne begins in San Francisco, it's widely believed that Sun will open-source Java as it did Solaris. And likely there will be a chorus of hallelujahs from the Sun faithful, and a light from the heavens will shine on the brow of Jonathan Schwartz, as Sun CTO James Gosling fires a barrage of T-shirts into the audience.

But that will only mask the reality of the Java world with white noise. The reality is that Java Standard Edition is still far from the success of Java Enterprise Edition, and Java Mobile Edition is getting the heave-ho from much of the mobile market in favor of a product from that place Loiacono went to'Mobile Flash.

And as hip and as cool as Java code may still be to those developers who embraced it in the last decade, the sad truth is that many of them would rather be developing AJAX applications with Ruby back ends instead, thank you.

'When James Gosling goes out of his way to bash PHP,' the Rat remarked to his gathered minions, referring to the free Web scripting language, 'you know where the real threat to Java is coming from.'

So, meet the new Sun boss, maybe not quite the same as the old Sun boss. But the Rat suggests that you not expect too much change'because Schwartz is still stuck with the same playbook McNealy was using, and most of it involves tap dancing until the next round of consolidations.

The Packet Rat once managed networks but now spends his time ferreting out bad packets in cyberspace. E-mail him at rrat@postnewsweektech.com.

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