A Call to Fix the JCP Oberver Status

In this blog, I report on my disappointing experience with the JCP observer status, and suggest that another dose of glasnost is needed to fix the process.

As a book author and glutton for punishment, I am often interested in bleeding-edge Java technologies, as they are cooked up through the Java community process. For example, when David Geary and myself wrote the first edition of our Core JavaServer Faces book, we needed to work with the early access versions of the spec and reference implementation (RI). At the time, source for the RI was only available to members of the expert group, and I had to use a decompiler to get an approximation of the source from the binary files. It was surprisingly effective, but not something that I care to repeat.

Fortunately, now the RI is developed with a public version control system on java.net, so that problem has gone away. But the spec is still very hard to read, and it would often help to have some background information on the thinking behind it. Unlike a true open source project, the expert group discussions are not public. The spec is only publicly updated at infrequent intervals and is often at variance with the RI.

When I complained bitterly to my fellow Java champions, someone suggested that I join any JSRs in which I am interested as an observer. This and this and this article tout the benefits of the observer status.

It turns out that, in order to be an observer, you first have to become a JCP member. That requires that your employer signs off on some pretty heavy legal paperwork. The JCP is naturally concerned that an employer doesn't later claim that some idea that made it into some JSR work product is their property. I didn't think there was any hope that anyone at my employer (San Jose State University) would understand the paperwork, or have the courage to sign it. But fortunately, I don't work for them during for the entire year, so I just signed it as a self-employed person while I was on break.

I then dutifully followed the process to sign on as an observer to a couple of JSRs (including JSR 314 for JSF 2.0), and the result was . . . nothing.

I emailed Ed Burns, the spec lead, and he responded:

CH> Hi Ed,
CH> I am an observer for JSR 314, but I am confused as to how I can observe.
CH> I naively assumed I would get some way of monitoring how the spec
CH> evolves, perhaps through read-only access of a mailing lists forum, and
CH> by being able to see proposal drafts. I logged onto the JCP page, and it
CH> has no contents. I was added to the observer alias, but have not
CH> received any email. Do I need to activate this in some way?

The observer list is very low traffic.  We use it for announcements on
the availability of new drafts.

We don't have a publically observable list for JSF 2.0.  We charged Kito
with maintaining a public JSF 2.0 group blog, but he hasn't updated it.
It's at <http://blogs.jsfcentral.com/jsf2group/>.  Please prod him to
update it.

Well, I am sorry, but that stinks. That's not openness. I think the JCP needs to move up to the next level of glasnost. I have sympathy for the poor spec leads who aren't given a lot of guidance. So the JCP should provide some guidance, such as:

To their credit, JSR 314 has a publicly accessible issue tracker. I don't think there is any evil intent to hide the discussions and drafts. They just didn't start out with a mechanism that made it easy. That's why I think the JCP should put every new JSR on notice to make all information public by default.

What's in it for you, the user of Java technology? Better technology, I think. Expert groups can have unhealthy dynamics, such as group think, design by committee, and a mad rush to adopt half-baked ideas just before deadlines. JSF in particular has some unhappy features, and absences of features. When the process is more open, interested people can watch what is about to happen, blog about the good and the bad, and raise awareness in the wider community. If you agree, please kvetch in the blog comments so that the JCP folks pay attention.