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Owning the Java Platform is more of a burden or a blessing

Oracle became stewards of the Java platform as a by-product of their acquisition of Sun Microsystems. But looking back, it seems that the Java Platform has been more of a burden than a blessing.

Acquiring the Java platform wasn't a top priority when Oracle purchased Sun Microsystems. 

There were plenty of ways for Oracle to completely ignore the Java Platform and still justify Sun's $7.4 billion price tag. Back in 2009, Oracle owned 48% of the relational database market, and the majority of those systems ran on Sun Microsystems hardware. Combining their prowess for selling database software with Sun's reputation for building arguably the industry's best hardware, Oracle would be positioning themselves to become a profitable, one-stop-shop for both hardware and software. The Java Platform had no relevance when it came to acquiring Sun Microsystems.

The Java Platform burden

But as we all know, with the acquisition of Sun, Oracle became the stewards of the Java Platform. At the time, Oracle brass played to the Java community well by talking up how important the Java language was to their long term business strategies, but the reality was that Java was just part of the peripheral grab bag of nuisances that accompanied the acquisition of Sun's UltraSpark and Solaris based systems. Not unlike MySQL and the NetBeans IDE, two other products that awkwardly elbowed their way into Oracle's product portfolio during the Sun takeover, in the end, Oracle's ownership of Java has become much more of a burden than a blessing.

Make no mistake about it, the Sun takeover was about hardware, the clients who bought hardware and the intellectual property surrounding it. Before the buyout, 85% of Sun's revenue came from hardware sales, and it accounted for 90% of their profit. Oracle wasn't interested in Java. More accurately, Oracle got saddled with it.

Reluctant stewards of the Java Platform

As the stewards of the Java Platform, Oracle simply couldn't win. There was distrust right from the outset over fears that attempts at monetization would wreak havoc on the Java ecosystem.

While Oracle has often been reluctant to take the feelings of the Java community into play when they made various business decisions surrounding the language, it's difficult to say, especially as we look at the latest release of Java SE 9 and Java EE 8 just prior to JavaOne 2017, that they were poor stewards of the language. But regardless of whether you believe Oracle did a good or bad job moving the Java platform forward, it's difficult to argue against the fact that for Oracle, owning Java has been a largely thankless job. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that stewardship of the Java Platform has been more of a burden to Oracle than a blessing.

I would also imagine that managing the Java platform is a massive money pit for Oracle. Oracle isn't Red Hat. Red Hat's entire business model is built around promoting open source software and charging for services surrounding it. That's not, never has been and never will be Oracle's business model. There were no doubt dreamers amongst the Oracle brass who believed Oracle could copy IBM and become the leader in providing support for a full stack of services that included the Oracle database, Sun's Spark based hardware, Solaris, and the Java platform, but that would have been just too big of a pivot for a company that was already making profits hand over fist with a different model.

Relinquishing the Java Platform

It's no surprise to hear that Oracle is looking to unload the stewardship of the Java Platform onto an open source foundation. Owning Java doesn't give Oracle any particular competitive advantage in terms of delivering services surrounding it. And given the way the Java Community Process works, Oracle doesn't even have full control over the manner in which the platform evolves.

In fact, Oracle doesn't even have control over how others use and change the language, as was proved out by the billion dollar Android lawsuit they lost. If anything put dollar signs in the eyes of Oracle shareholders, it was the prospect of leeching billions of dollars off the success of Google's mobile operating system and the manner in which Android appropriated the Java API. After losing that lawsuit and practically every subsequent appeal, there's no doubt in my mind that the bean counters at Oracle just threw their hands up in the air, figuring that if they can't even stop other companies from tweaking, tinkering with and selling a Java based system of their own, what's the point in even owning it?

Given the fact that Oracle never really wanted to own Java, the fact that their stewardship of the Java Platform has never given them a competitive advantage in the delivery of services surrounding the Java language, and the fact that ownership doesn't really translate into any monetizable control of the APIs, it's no surprise to find out that Oracle is talking about moving Java into the hands of the open-source community. For Oracle, being the stewards of the Java Platform has always been more of a burden than a blessing.

You can follow Cameron McKenzie on Twitter: @cameronmcnz

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