Communication: Getting the Message Out to the Community and Marketplace
By Susan Mitchell
Once upon a time, Java Specification Requests (JSRs) were developed in a semi-secret fashion. A Spec Lead invited a select group of Experts to sign up with the group that would hammer out a specification, Reference Implementation (RI), and Technology Compatibility Kit (TCK) over the course of multiple years. It was hard for outsiders to know what decisions were being made by the group, and by the time the reviews rolled through the community, it was too late to have much influence on them.
Constraining technical input to the Expert Group proved too limiting. The current goal is to have Expert Groups operate in a much more transparent fashion at every stage of JSR development. The idea behind opening the doors earlier and to a wider variety of voices is to hear and address actual needs for the technology as well as to stir up interest in developing the hardware and software to implement it.
Roger Riggs of Sun Microsystems was the Spec Lead for JSRs 185, 211, and 239. He approves of the move toward increased transparency. He says, "For new JSRs, I see no reason not be open and transparent." However, he cautions that operating this way takes extra work, with an overhead associated with transparency. "Blogging, responding to every request, and even just posting regular status has a cost" that must be recognized and borne by employers.
Web 2.0 technologies are creating opportunities to disseminate information in new ways, and several Spec Leads have been using those methods to positive effect. Some of the more creative means of promoting JSR development have come into being only recently. For example, Kimmo Loytana of Nokia noted that when his project, JSR 179, was in development, blogs were not yet a popular concept. Now, blogging is a favorite tool employed by numerous Expert Groups. Instant Messaging (IM), YouTube, Twitter, and Wikipedia are other newfangled strategies being tried, along with the more usual live presentations at conferences, Birds-of-a-Feather (BOF) discussions at JavaOne, appearances at Java User Groups (JUGs), and media interviews.
Here are some case studies of Spec Leads who are enthusiastically getting the message about their JSR out to the community and marketplace:
Star Spec Lead for 2009, largely because of the creative ways he finds to make his JSR transparent. Currently a senior staff engineer at Sun, Ed is also co-Spec Lead of the three successive versions of Java ServerFaces (JSF) developed through JSRs 127, 252, and 314.
The practical benefits of that effort are twofold: increased adoption of the technology and a decreased lag time between final release and implementation. In addition, Ed feels a tremendous personal gratification in knowing he has encouraged the community to have a real say in the evolution of the Java Platform.
With new tools and innovations, Ed's Expert Group continues to explore new possibilities for communicating with the public, including hanging out daily in the JSF chat room, issuing Twitter tweets, announcing updates on jsfcentral.com, screencasting demos of the software, bookmarking useful websites through delicious, and keeping an eye on the accuracy of the Wikipedia entry.
Ed recently opened his JSR 314 Expert Group email list to the public as one more way to get the news flowing out. Public subscribers have read-only privileges by default.
With so many channels of communication pointing out, Ed makes sure there are also channels pointing in. The JSF Expert Group uses java.net project infrastructure for private communications within the group as well as for public feedback. The public java.net issue tracker captures all the issues addressed by the Expert Group. If people have something to say about the JSR, Ed wants to hear it, track it, and respond to it in a meaningful way.
"The idea for giving presentations came from individual active members and wasn't something we carefully planned within the Expert Group," says Matti. "There needs to be a business motivation: the companies get good visibility and potential new developers for their products. Also, there is always a chance that someone from the audience becomes interested and joins the JCP program and the Expert Group."
In recent years Wikipedia has become an important source of information for most Internet users. Because it appears high in search engine listings, Matti concludes that many people turn to it as a quick first source when learning about a new topic. Many JSRs have a Wikipedia article, either created by the Expert Group or, more likely, by someone else in the Wikipedia community. Matti and the rest of his group continue to monitor and contribute to the JSR 234 Wikipedia page. This page was created May 2008 to continue getting the word out even though the development effort is no longer in an active phase. It is a great place for readers to learn the scope of the specification and see how it is being implemented in mobile devices and emulators.
Matti says, "I think it is important that we as the experts of the field are active in at least making sure the information there is correct. However, one thing to remember is that a Wikipedia article cannot be the primary source of information, but instead it must always refer to the source, in our case to www.jcp.org. It is impossible to know how many times the Wikipedia article has been looked at, but think about how many times you have personally looked at something from Wikipedia?" Extrapolate from there.
Of course, if the information is being pushed out into the community, it is likely that some will want to comment back on JSR 234. The Wikipedia article's list of references points back to the official JSR 234 page, so people can always see the latest status and find the email address, email@example.com, to which they can send comments, questions, or feedback. The email address is also published on the cover page of the specification.
Although there have been no requests or plans for another maintenance release, Matti keeps that email address open, and he personally responds within 48 hours or so to all queries. Moreover, "if they are not trivial" he passes them along to the Working Group, which is the original Expert Group.
It's not surprising that Matti is unable to accurately measure and attribute the particular effects of the various means of communication the JSR 234 Expert Group used. Nevertheless, he believes there is positive gain from all of the efforts. He says, "It is difficult to say what was caused by the presentations or Wikipedia and what would have happened anyway. I think spreading word about a JSR actually benefits most the implementers of the JSR by growing a potentially larger developer community for their devices."
Everything else about the process Marc and Paul oversee is similarly transparent. In order to better promote both the effort guided by the JCP program as well as the Jersey project, Marc and Paul have lived up to their ambitious transparency plan stated on the JSR 311 home page, "to solicit feedback from the community and leverage the open source development model." Everyone who wants to subscribe is granted full read/write privileges for four public mailing lists (and anyone else is welcome to browse the archives): JSR 311 specification, JSR 311 RI, Jersey specification, and Jersey RI.
Marc and Paul have broadcast information about their status and progress in several ways. Most recently, the JavaOne 2009 Conference scheduled a sizeable number of sessions (16!) devoted to "RESTful Web Services." In a year when so many papers were not accepted, it's extraordinary that Marc and Paul earned a speaking role at three of them. They speak at other conferences as well, such as DEVOXX, Jazoon, CommunityOne West, and the GlassFish Unconference.
Press interviews are another way Marc and Paul communicate with the public. Back when JSR 311 was first introduced, Marc answered some questions for InfoQ, and then he and Paul were interviewed again after the API became final. They have two GlassFish podcast interviews posted here and here.
Marc is a prolific blogger, writing at least once a quarter since 2003. That's an impressive record, considering how many bloggers fall off the wagon after the initial joy wears off. Paul holds his own in the blogging department, too. He started his "Earthly Powers" Weblog way back in 2005, and it continues today, addressing the topics of Java, REST, Fast Infoset, and General. He wrote an entry on "Integrating Jersey and Spring: Take 2" on 1 February 2008, which apparently hit a nerve in the community. Comments, questions, suggestions were going strong on it for seven months, an eternity in the blogosphere. His current blog page received over 130 page hits on a Tuesday in May, showing that its popularity continues unabated.
Twitter isn't a technology that Spec Leads are using too much yet. However, Marc and Paul have enough of an online presence to prompt Patrick Mueller of IBM to include this in his blog entry for August 18, 2007: "Marc Hadley responded quite quickly to my blog entry on JSR 311. Excellent. I'm really digging the transparency. I'm thinking Twitter may have played a part in the quick response."
That may or may not be an accurate perception, but what is clear is that the JSR 311 co-Spec Leads take their marketing-communications role seriously, employing a variety of of hip venues to raise awareness of their product.