Sun's chief scientist stresses Java ubiquity

Gage talks about HP's Java virtual machine, Microsoft lawsuit

By Solomon S. Emanuel

July  1998
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Never one to hold back in interviews, Sun's John Gage, discusses alternative vendor implementations of the Java virtual machine and governmental control and social effects of the Internet. (1,700 words)

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As chief scientist at Sun Microsystems Inc., John Gage is responsible for Sun's relationships with the world's scientific and public policy communities, as well as international scientific institutions and groups developing new forms of scientific research involving computing.

Computerworld's Solomon S. Emanuel recently met up with Gage to discuss issues relating to Java and the Internet.

Emanuel: Hewlett-Packard Co. is creating its own Java-based virtual machine for embedded systems. How does this affect the Java movement, and ultimately users?

Gage: Well I talked to the HP guys, and I think that they're interested in ubiquity. That's fine with us as long as they maintain the compatibility and that's the notion of Java -- go out and implement it. From what I can tell, though I may be wrong, there's no desire on HP's part to do anything that's in any way variant from the Java standards. They just want to do an implementation that they are in control of that has nothing to do with Sun. If they do something that varies, I don't think that would be by design. I have no problem with HP doing this. Anybody can do an implementation.

Since the world is shifting to a world of very small devices being distributed, Sun too might be very different two or three years from now. We formed a consumer division that's focusing on very small devices. This is a new adventure for us. And it's very unclear that we're confident to make such small devices. People often ignore how hard it is just to do the plastic mold for small devices. What we'll probably end up doing, I think, is this new industrial model where we integrate our suppliers by intranets.

Emanuel: In your opinion, how accurate is the comment that Java is so popular among IT vendors because it is not a Microsoft Corp. product?

John Gage

Gage: There's a lot of truth in that. It's not so much a slap at Microsoft. It's observance that those revolutionary changes in computing, the big and long-lasting ones that became ubiquitous, were those that were free from dominance from any one entity. Ethernet is the first example. TCP/IP is the second example.

But you have to be careful when you read. It's always fun to write about the battles between (Oracle's Chairman and CEO) Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, (chairman and CEO of Microsoft), and (Sun Microsystems Inc. Chairman, CEO and President) Scott McNealy. They have little to do with the way these things work.

So it's nice press, but they are all to some degree, people who believe their own press releases. But down beneath it all, engineers are attempting to make things work, and that's why there's engineering outrage when somebody like parts of Microsoft, not all of Microsoft, attempts to damage Java by removing some part of it in a particular case that we're suing them over.

When they signed the contract with us, (Microsoft became) Java licensees like 170 other entities. We wrote the Java standard that you can take and write anything you want. To be able to say that it is really Java, you have to be able to comply (with the license).

The Java language, well that's very tightly designed. That's the genius of it in some sense. Guy Steele, (a distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems) and Bill Joy, (cofounder and vice president for research, Sun Microsystems), wrote in an LALR(1) (Look Ahead Left Right with 1 token lookahead) exact syntactic description which is an intellectual giant feat.

Now we know exactly what the language is. We know what the virtual machine is supposed to do. And inside the Java VM are small things which are implementing something like `who are you?' digital signature stuff. And the licensees all agreed to ship the set of things so the program can expect them to be there.

And Microsoft removes two of them. Just removes them. Well what are we confronted with? We are confronted with a spoiled child.

So they removed two particular objects which the contract obliged them to ship. IBM, HP and everybody else are quite dedicated to ubiquity, not Microsoft. So we ran into this horrible choice which has a bad answer either way you go. Either you sue them or you don't sue them. Either you spank the child or you give them candy. How do you influence the child to do the right thing? Well in our case, if they just arbitrarily do things like this, we must spank them.

So we filed a suit and almost instantly the judge said, "It's so evident that Microsoft violated the contract that we give you relief instantly. Microsoft must remove from all shelves in the world any box that has a Java logo because it so clearly violated the contract."

It is horrible to be forced to get into a court of law for what is sort of ethical behavior.

But you know what's nice about Microsoft? When the chips appear to be down, when they're forced to, they can do a good job.

It's not terribly hard to write a browser, but when (Netscape Communications Corp.'s Cofounder and Senior Vice President of Technology) Marc Andreessen, a kid, wrote some software and in less than two weeks to find it running on more computers than Microsoft (enjoyed), even slow-moving monopolistic Microsoft had to wake up to the realization they were just not computer-literate enough and so then they focused. And Gates is very good at this, and when he focuses he can do things. And they wrote Internet Explorer which is good software. They did a good job. So they can do it when they are under pressure.

But think about the blindness. Joy talked to Gates about the Internet in 1982. We offered to give all the source code, TCP/IP, to little Microsoft so they will be able to make the little machines talk with the rest of the world. He (Gates) wasn't interested. Well, arrogance and ignorance combined yielded Novell. Suddenly this other company takes all the money. It could have been Microsoft's.

Emanuel: In your opinion, should governments put any controls on the Internet, and if so how much?

Gage: Yes, yes!

There's a great role for government. People don't realize it but there's a great role for government. It is to provide a framework for contractual relationships and redress for gross error. For the Internet, it is to establish the ground rules for Internet commerce.

Ground rules mean that someone is able to execute a contract with the belief that if the other side violates the contract, there is redress. Perhaps existing law provides enough of that. But in the specific case of the Internet, it probably doesn't.

For example, how many countries have a legal recognition of digital signatures as a binding signature? Most documents to be legal in Japan have to have a red stamp on them. So governments have, ahead of them, the intellectual exercise of transferring the law of contracts and the law of commercial paper -- deeds, wills, bills, all those well-established by tradition forms of commercial interchanges -- and moving them into a stream of bits, authenticated with encryption that can be believed in by those doing business.

Beyond that, the areas of censorship and content-control. I'm very sympathetic to the Chinese, the Islamic (nations), and to each of the countries' cultural concerns about material that distorts the cultural patterns of their nations. So I think that each community -- but I would not make it an international entity -- has to establish what they believe is important.

The Internet provides several things that are new. It provides 6,000 scripts of the world -- a new publishing regime which allows us to have novels written in languages that don't have printing presses. This is wonderful. But on the other hand, it allows a ubiquity of digital communications that erodes these separate cultural environments.

We absolutely are committed to the idea that the new forms of commerce must have a (sufficient) period of time for the legal and cultural accommodations to take place. So there should not be a rush to legislate. That's why we admire the Malaysian legislation that it picked carefully the components that it needed to build e-commerce. It did not over-legislate as the United States is very prone to do.

Emanuel: You recently said that the social effects of the Internet differs from other forms of universal broadcasting. How so?

Gage: As a child in a school, reading a poem that's on the 'Net by someone in Singapore makes you suddenly think about Singapore as a real place with real people. Or a Singaporean reading a poem written by a kid in San Francisco, a link forms. Not from the top down as the existing broadcast media effort, but instead horizontally.

And that to us is the power of the Web. The whole "Webish" notion that there is no one link that is indispensable, everything is indestructible, becomes the same in leading human conversation, social interactions, and business interactions (across the Internet).

So the uniform position of industry, the need for global standards for exchange; that is the e-commerce debate. How do I pay? Get paid? Large unanswered questions about how does taxation work in this new world. This allows the barriers for entry to those creating, those selling, those buying (to be lowered).

We decrease the barriers of entry which spreads economic access to a much larger group. So we've always said at Sun that somewhere out there is a kid who is creating something that will alter your business fundamentally. And if you designed it so that that innovation is not incorporated in what you do, you'll die.

--Solomon S. Emanuel writes for Computerworld Singapore, a SunWorld affiliate


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