Thoughts on the Jigsaw debacle

Disclaimer: this is a personal piece of opinion and in absolutely no way does it necessarily reflect the views of my current employer. I have spent 13 years at Sun/Oracle (5 of which in the GlassFish team which had a modularity experience of its own) and I still care very much about the future of Java. I now work at Google.

Runtime modularity in Java has been promised since JSR 277 was filed in 2005 and I wrote how excited I was about its potential back then. Seven (7!) years, a fair amount of OSGi lobbying and politics, Sun’s acquisition, and a plan B promise later, we’ve come to this day to learn that it’ll be pushed further out to 2015 which really means 2016 for a stable release and probably 2020 for a wide adoption. After being promised Java 8 with Jigsaw in late 2012 by Oracle, we’re now taking another 3-year hit because the project missed “the train”.

About resources and goals
Jigsaw has been Mark Reinhold’s baby project for all this time (Mark is the Chief Architect of Java) and I’m now hearing excuses about staffing issues. “Oracle failed to staff Java modularity effort for years”. Hey, now that’s a much better headline! The reality I believe is that Oracle still doesn’t know why it’s doing Jigsaw and thus giving it the proper priority is hard. Modularize the JRE itself to help with JavaME and JavaFX adoption? Offer a modules system for Java’s longer-term viability? A business case can certainly be put together to shrink down the JRE to get Oracle upper management on board. On the other hand, bringing the JVM, the compiler, and the language together around a modules system seems, sadly, to be falling off of Oracle’s radar.

About that train
The common wisdom is that the Eclipse way of shipping software is the best way to get a community of developers building on a platform. You’ve probably also heard of “release early release often”. Eclipse is a very special project which is really about providing a baseline for the Foundation members to build upon and I’d argue that Eclipse IDE users on the other side are not benefiting much from this release model. When it comes to Java, we’re talking about something that also has a diverse audience and I think developers remain far more important than vendors and that a cadenced release model is actually harmful. It’s easy to agree on shipping software when it’s fully baked but the two-year cycle is really the key issue here. Oracle should be able to declare Jigsaw a strategic goal and deliver it with an extra 6 to 12 months (which, by the way, would still mean 2+ years from now!).

About the community
Jigsaw has been presented for many many years by Sun and later Oracle as a key feature in numerous keynotes and conferences and promised in Java 7, Java 8 (in fact I’ve done my share of such promotion while at Oracle) and now Java 9. That has created a lot of expectations in the community. In fact, it’s not only about Java SE as a large portion of the Java ecosystem is also waiting for a standard modularity solution: JavaME, Java EE (see this sample IBM reaction when modularity had to be removed from EE 7), Groovy and other JVM languages and probably by many developers building non-trivial applications with Java. Surely there’s got to be a better way to convey bad news to the community than “sorry, we’ve missed the train!”. In retrospect, the plan A/plan B approach was a brilliant communication plan with Plan A really not being an option and the community rallying behind Plan B. It’s often about how things are conveyed, not only about what they convey.

About open source
I hear some say that this would not have happened if Java was truly open source with a community, not a company, overlooking its destiny. First, my definition of Open Source remains. IP and governance are (ideally) orthogonal to the license and no simple solution exists for all software projects. But more importantly, this is a sad case of a project’s failed risk mitigation (sadly a very common failure in our industry). To consider that a different governance model would have changed anything is wishful thinking. Innovative carefully crafted designs always come from a very small number of talented engineers and in fact, this may even be a case where going open source and transparent was not a good idea but rather a fatal distraction.

About what’s next
As I wrote above, Oracle has the resources to declare Jigsaw a strategic goal. I can agree that it may be hard to deliver by late 2013 but waiting for 2016 is effectively killing Jigsaw and encouraging everyone to look at alternatives which will jeopardize yet even more Jigsaw’s chances of ever seeing the light of day. In fact, even Oracle is considering profiles in Java 8, an ugly band-aid if you ask me. One you’ll need to painfully tear off to get proper modularity in the platform. Jigsaw really shouldn’t be seen as “a new feature”, to me it’s really the Java reboot some people have been calling for a long time. Only a compatible one.

Now of course this is all my personal take and I don’t pretend to know what’s good for Java nor represent the community at large. So getting some hard data about what the community expects from Jigsaw would be a good start before making any decision. I believe this has not been done so far. The closest I’ve seen is the recent JAXenter poll which isn’t very scientific (self-selected, somewhat biased questions).

So in the end, if the community wants Java 8 with its updated and stripped-down content (Lambda, maybe JSR 310, what else?) in 2013, Oracle and the JCP should deliver just that. Again, it’s about meeting expectations. But shipping a Java 8.5 with Jigsaw sooner than later should also be considered. And if there really needs to be a train release model, it has to be a yearly one and not every release needs to be a major one.

In a world where standing still is perceived as fossilization, bringing proper modularity to Java is what moving Java forward ™ is really about.