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JCP Watch
Standards and Innovation
A Conversation with Rob Gingell, Part I
by Frank Sommers
January 13, 2002

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The Positive Feedback Loop of Binary Compatibility

Frank Sommers: Do you mean that for Java's continued success in the marketplace, binary compatibility is much more important than source code compatibility?

Rob Gingell: I think binary compatibility is much more market- and economically relevant than source compatibility independent of the technology. Java's power stems in part from being partitioned into two pieces: 1) the Java virtual machine (JVM), the basis for an instruction set architecture that is universal, and 2) the means used to target the JVM, which is largely, but not exclusively, Java. I wouldn't be surprised to see additional things targeting the JVM, and some of what we know of as "the Java language" to see some diversity in coming years as we consider more areas of computing.

There are very few models of the industry that are both simple and accurate. One which seems to pass that test says that the industry can be modeled by looking at the positive feedback loop among developers: Developers write applications. That produces volume, which then attracts more developers, and so on. And that model is fundamentally a model that applies to binaries. It explains much that source level compatibility doesn't explain.

For instance, Solaris has essentially 100% coverage of the Unix applications market. Every Unix application that exists has a Solaris/SPARC instance for it. You could not, therefore, imagine a more trivial recompilation exercise than to make the same application available for Solaris/IA32 [Solaris, Intel x86 Edition]. So how come it didn't happen? According to the source code theory of the world, that should have happened instantly.

Or, consider Alpha. How come Digital had to essentially buy off people to make Alpha versions of applications? Aren't they all Unix applications? Isn't it just a recompile, or maybe a recompile with a little work? How come they had to be paid to do it?

Then, when Linux came around, which is really a Unix/IA32 system, how come all the applications showed up?

The answer in all those cases relates to anticipated volume of binaries. Having a shared space of binaries is much more vital and powerful than having a shared space of source. That's not to say that shared spaces of source are not valuable in their own right. It's just that the properties that attend to them are not the ones that have historically explained economic behavior in the industry.

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