IBM & Oracle: From Monopoly to Duopoly?

Sebastian Meyen

Two major players reach an unexpected agreement: what does this mean for the wider Java community?

Today, the Java community was caught offguard as two major players – Big Blue and Big Red – came to an unexpected agreement. IBM, who always had the strategic option of declaring Java War on Oracle, has instead agreed to work alongside the company in developing OpenJDK.

This is good news for Java, showing that Oracle is able to bring important players onto the board. Oracle seems to have proven many (including myself) wrong in their belief that Oracle would determine the fate of the Java platform alone.

IBM, who just a few days ago praised the advantages of Apache Harmony’s modular architecture (which is based on OSGi instead of Jigsaw) in a keynote at JAX London and the OSGi community event, has apparently elected for promoting peace and stability, over inciting riots in the Java camp.

The End for Apache Harmony

Bob Sutor, vice president of open systems at IBM, shed some light on this decision: it was a pragmatic decision, as neither Sun nor Oracle gave any indication that Apache Harmony would ever gain access to the official Test Compatibility Kit ( TCK). Only through this test, can a Java implementation be officially certified.

What this means for Apache Harmony, is summed up at Sutor’s blog:

IBM will be shifting its development effort from the Apache Harmony Project to OpenJDK. – Bob Sutor

This signals the end of Harmony – which, interestingly, is the basis for Google’s Android. How Android developers will deal with this development, remains to be seen. They already have a fork of the Java platform with the Dalvik Virtual Machine, but rely on countless Harmony libraries – which have just lost their biggest backer.

Setback for OSGi

The agreement is a major setback for the OSGi community, which already lost the battle for OSGi to be introduced into the JDK, and which set its hopes on Apache Harmony becoming an established technology. However, since IBM has committed itself to Oracle’s OpenJDK 7 roadmap, there will be no further OSGi-versus-Jigsaw-debates in the Java camp.

Duopoly or oligopoly?

The impact the agreement will have on the exact number of OpenJDK developers, is not yet known. The only certainty is that the lion’s share of OpenJDK development was taken by Sun – later Oracle – engineers, while the pure Community Contributions were rather sparse. Now, it seems that the development team will be completed by professionals from IBM. With IBM, Oracle had a negotiating partner of equal power and influence, with whom an agreement has been made. Whether the two have paved the way for further cooperation, is not yet clear. VMware / SpringSource, Red Hat, SAP are surely poised, to claim their intention to influence the future development of Java. Whether the two big players aim now at a duopoly, or a collaboration of all major Java players, remains to be seen.

Fork Avoided

A fork of Java seems to have been avoided – for the time being. Apart from Google, which struck out on its own with Android several years ago, it seems that we are not heading towards a multipolar world just yet. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that OpenJDK is simply an implementation of the Standard Edition, and is far from being a complete stack for Web and Enterprise.

Whether we will see further agreements in this area – or if different ‘flavours’ emerge – remains uncertain. It is conceivable that, for example, SpringSource could propose an alternative definition of an Enterprise stack with a strong focus on cloud computing campabilities. And let’s not forget the Eclipse runtime stack which is almost a full replacement for the traditional Java EE.

Final Remark

For the industry, the agreement between the two giants is a positive step towards continuity and stability. And, Sutor’s statements that Oracle and IBM are committed to a highly organised innovation of Java, will not be overlooked by the community and the many enterprise partners. We shouldn’t assume however that the duo will feel obligated to respond to the community’s every impulse. They will always focus on release schedules and the efficient development of the platform, over the individual developer’s wishes. They may not be loved for this, but they will surely be respected by many.

The agreement may also benefit the JCP. In recent years, IBM urged Sun – together with Oracle – to make the JCP open and democratic. In addition, with the donation of Eclipse to an independent foundation in 2004, IBM has proven it has the ability to organise communities in a credible way – despite its factual dominance.

Sebastian Meyen
Sebastian is Chief Content Officer at S&S Media, the publisher of He has been actively involved with the IT industry for almost two decades. As a journalist he is constantly in touch with thought leaders in software development and architecture. He is editor in chief of the German speaking Java Magazin and program chair of the JAX conferences since 2001. Prior to joining S&S Media, he studied philosophy and anthropology in Frankfurt, Germany.

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