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Opinion

Google vs Oracle: Java legal conflict in the mobile world
Rob Bamforth By: Rob Bamforth, Principal Analyst, Quocirca
Published: 30th April 2012
Copyright Quocirca © 2012
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How ironic is it that a technology with the stated aim of spanning all hardware platforms so that software could follow the mantra “Write once, run anywhere”, could be so divisive?

Java started out in a ‘secret’ offshoot of Sun Microsystems called FirstPerson with work on some cartoon style user interfaces for video on demand. It ran, in demos at least, on a small handheld touchscreen mobile device called the Star 7. The language and multi-platform nature of Java first emerged in 1994 in the form of Oak on a browser called WebRunner – respectively renamed Java & HotJava.

As the Java platform and ecosystem grew in the mid 90s through a flurry a licensing deals, feature creep set in and it splintered to try to span different scales of platforms – enterprise, servers, desktops, smartcards and, once again, mobile devices.

Java on small platforms always provoked a lot of interest, and when Canadian networking giant Nortel started to talk about its Orbitor phone, many were very excited. This Java-based phone had a large touchscreen display and even used rows of app icons – just like modern day smartphones.

Of course, the Orbitor was heftier than an iPhone and only monochrome, but this was 1998, practically the Dark Ages in the context of mobile technology – almost 10 years before the launch of Apple’s iPhone.

Nortel and Sun jointly pitched the mobile Java platform and concept to telephony industry body ETSI, which was working on a standard for the execution environment (MExE) for mobile handsets. At the same time a group, comprised of Ericsson, Nokia and Unwired Planet, proposed something different, called wireless access protocol (WAP).

While mobile phones have evolved into smart mobile application platforms, the standards’ processes were slower than market momentum. Nortel canned the Orbitor, early WAP demonstrated how easy it is to over promise, yet Java’s success as a development language, desktop browser enhancer and in servers was complimented by its continuation in small platforms with mobile games and other applications.

So no surprises that Java is so closely involved in Google’s Android (a platform and company that Google acquired) and it is also perhaps no surprise that one of Oracle’s key reasons for acquiring Sun was for the rights to Java. The arguments in the lawsuit revolve around the unlicensed use of Java in the now Google-owned Android platform and Oracle wants its cut of the money.

Some former Sun Java engineers work at Google (pretty common to see movement of folk around the Silicon Valley area; former Google CEO Eric Schmidt was a long term Sun executive) and some Java code appears to have been either accidentally or deliberately used in Android. The key question is what was the state of the agreement with Sun regarding the formality or otherwise of this, and now, in the hands of Oracle’s lawyers, it becomes a usable stick.

Legal sticks and patents, used wisely, were at one time used to defend the interests of innovators who, having created something from their own endeavours, would like to be able to build on themselves, rather than have them exploited elsewhere. Now they are all too often the tools of already wealthy and dominant organisations seeking to protect themselves from new ‘upstarts’ who, with innovation, will bring about change.

This case is different, involving two industry giants, but it looks clumsy, as both seem less interested in advancing innovation in the mobile world. Oracle appears to be more interested in driving license revenue and sweating the asset it has acquired as part of Sun, rather than ramping up adoption or breathing new innovation into the Java platform.

It’s a similar story with Google – Co-founder Larry Page has said during the trial that Android is ‘not critical’ for Google. Saying it was nothing more than a mobile operating system used to deliver Google services (and adverts).

This type of not-so-subtle messaging does little to encourage that most critical part of the ecosystem – software developers.

Past experiences have shown time and again – Microsoft with its consistently excellent developer programs, most recently Apple’s creation of the App Store market and even Sun’s early Java years – that developer support and application momentum is critical. It has to be positive and constant, but most importantly it must be based on a firm foundation – it needs commitment.

Without that solidity and commitment, the virtuous cycle of application availability generating user interest leading to device sales and therefore increased application opportunity stops and reverses. In the fast-paced mobile device space decline can be rapid – just ask former leaders RIM and Nokia.

In an increasingly connected world customer adoption and loyalty is based on volume, innovation and breadth of offer, which the multi-platform concept behind Java was all about. It’s not based on raking over the past and seeing who has the best legal team.

Take note Google and Oracle.

This article first appeared on http://www.knowyourmobile.com

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