The struggle over Java is anything but casual. Passions run unusually high in everyone from casual observers to major players in what is described as a modern-day religious war. And while the big guns are slinging mud with the government and each other, the developer community is finding its own voice through an organization called the Java Lobby. Founded earlier this year by Java programmer Rick Ross, the Java Lobby unites the developers actually using Java so that their interests aren’t lost in the media and legal frenzy. But Ross isn’t a lobbyist by trade, nor a Sun Microsystems hired gun. So how did he go from a regular-joe developer to having Scott McNealy take his calls? Let’s just say he found the activist within.
Like many of today’s big deals, the Java Lobby began with one little e-mail. Fed up with the tug-of-war surrounding Java between Sun and Microsoft, Ross wrote a lengthy, bitter post to a newsgroup about how he felt the developers were lacking representation in the struggle. But, unlike many of today’s users, Ross changed his mind before he hit the “send” button. He revised the message to take a more positive, constructive tone. “I was tired of having bigwigs decide what I do. I decided to complain, but then realized I had written just another flame.” The response was overwhelming. Ross decided to harness this passion to form a grassroots group rallied around the cause. He set up the Java Lobby Web site and invited developers worldwide to join online. They did and Ross became their spokesperson. This turn of events came as a shock, but Ross embraced the opportunity to represent the interests of his peers. “I have no idea what happened. I am just like everyone else, but now I’m in the middle of this maelstrom.” Though his credentials did not scream “activist,” Ross’s obvious emotional commitment to the issues made him a legitimate candidate for the role.
Rick Ross earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and it shows. Get him talking about Java and he quickly enlarges the argument to include issues of technology, society, politics and the global economy. He is prone to sweeping statements about how these topics are intertwined, such as his belief that, “The Internet bodes well for freedom in a bigger sense. It’s not just about technology issues, it’s about us as a people.” Unlike some names that consistently make the papers, Ross’s claims are rooted in the truth of his own story, not sheer speculation. Calling the Java Lobby itself an “Internet phenomenon,” Ross has first-hand experience that anyone with a strong conviction can reach an audience and develop support online. “This is the first time in 10,000 generations we have the chance to change the way we connect with one another and defend our rights. And it’s up to us to make it happen.”
This brand of social commentary was nurtured early on in Ross at St. John’s college in Annapolis, Maryland. A small, progressive school, Ross’s fixed curriculum covered “everyone from Euclid to Einstein.” Ross was was challenged, but distracted. He reveals, “They had to create a new level of probation for me.” The study of Euclidian geometry actually provided Ross with his first introduction to computing and tapped into his innate curiosity. “I bought a stats calculator and became an instant geek,” he recounts. “Then I bought another. But I kept returning them for bigger, more expensive models with better functions. It was like heroin.” Ross was obviously hooked. After earning his bachelor’s degree and then his Master’s in international business, Ross tried his hand at investment banking, then went cold turkey on finance and focused his energy on his passion for technology. He was most smitten by portable computing and graphics, and began experimenting with concepts and implementations. This work, coupled with the direction of a colleague who wrote the SPL programming language, got Ross thinking about technology and its place in the world — thoughts which have evolved today into a full-fledged philosophy.
“Developers are like artists,” he says. “Michaelangelo once said that ‘inside every hunk of marble, there’s a great sculpture waiting to get out.’ You can look at silicone and electricity that way — they add beauty to the world.”
Making allowances for a bit of hyperbole, Ross’s claim that technology can change the world is certainly proving true in the area of big business. Never before has an industry of this size received such attention and scrutiny. When asked (inevitably) about Microsoft, Ross is adamant about the Java Lobby’s position as “pro-Java, not anti-Microsoft.” And though he concedes that “Microsoft is doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, which is to raise the value of their shares,” his issue with the software giant takes on a personal tone. “Microsoft said they were going to be at the party, that they were going to support Java. They could have backed, ‘Write once, run anywhere, but run best on Windows.’ Instead, they turned on a dime and left Java developers hanging. It will be a long, long time before I believe anything they say again.”
The Java Lobby has brought together developers with this same passion for their craft. Though there is a board in place, most of the activity originates with Ross and the other volunteers who help put in motion initiatives such as the Java-ready PC plan which lobbies vendors to sell Java-enabled hardware. At the time of this interview, the number of members had reached 17,902; the Internet at work yet again. Outsiders would wonder what it is about Java that has caused such an uproar. Ross’s perspective is, not surprisingly, on a macro scale. “By the end of the 1980s, no one was interested in doing anything innovative because everyone was talking about how the technology industry had matured. Everyone was making homogenous software,” Ross recalls. “What Java did was reawaken the spirit by showing developers that, through technology, they could make the world a better place.”
Amazingly, the Java Lobby is Ross’s hobby. He also runs his own software company called Activated Intelligence, though these days you’re more likely to find him explaining Java to the Attorney General of New York than filling his corporate role. But his new-found fame is not at the heart of his motivation. “This is not about personal power, but about re-empowering a group of free-thinking developers who use technology to shape our lives. I’m just like every other developer. I don’t regard anyone as important to begin with.”