There was a time when vendors knew how to color inside the lines. A database vendor sold databases. An operating system vendor peddled operating systems. And application server vendors were in the business of selling application servers.
Customers knew what "application server" meant, which is what paved the way for low-cost, high-value open-source application servers like JBoss, Geronimo, and others to arise. The category was well understood. The only thing the customer had to decide was whether she wished to overspend on a brand-name application server or buy into an open-source upstart.
As the economy continues to pressure IT budgets, a new breed of application server is rising, one that doesn't color nicely within the lines of the traditional "app server" definition.
First there was SpringSource, which in April 2008 claimed it had developed the first "proper Java application server" to hit the market in more than 10 years. IBM, Oracle, and Red Hat (JBoss) must have found this surprising, given that "proper Java application servers" were what they presumed to be selling to their customers.
SpringSource, pressing the issue further, this week announced Spring Roo, an "interactive, lightweight, user-customizable tooling that enables rapid delivery of high-performance enterprise Java applications." At just 4MB, Spring Roo is tiny, but its promise is big: "working applications within 10 minutes of finishing the download" (video here).
Red Hat is taking notice of SpringSource's moves, but SpringSource founder Rod Johnson is dismissive of Red Hat's ability to compete:
Red Hat recently announced a defensive move (JBoss Open Choice strategy) motivated by trying to play catch-up with SpringSource. Clearly the momentum of SpringSource tc Server and dm Server has Red Hat worried, along with the continued advance of the Spring Framework as the de facto standard component model for enterprise Java.
The "JBoss Open Choice strategy" appears to be a repackaging, rather than new technology, which attempts to position JBoss as still relevant in a brave new world of changing requirements. On a positive note, it appears Red Hat has finally realized that many developers and customers have long since moved away from the full Java EE stack; that the traditional heavyweight application server has declined in importance; and that the Spring programming model is important to their customer base.
The paint is barely dry on JBoss' incursion into IBM's and Oracle's application server territory, and already it's under attack from SpringSource, which is positioning JBoss as old technology, despite barely being out of its teens. It's a sharp attack, but perhaps a sign of open-source competition to come.
Consider MindTouch. The entire idea of a Java application server got a shaking this week from MindTouch, which announced a new application packaging feature for its collaboration platform, as TechCrunch reports. This feature:
(A)llows developers to create a compressed file for import into other MindTouch instances, letting enterprise users install add-on applications easily. This addition represents MindTouch's ambitions to become an application platform where installing applications (is) as easy as adding Firefox add-ons.
This may not sound very groundbreaking, until you consider that MindTouch is essentially announcing that it has turned the wiki into an application platform. Until last year MindTouch was mostly known for its DekiWiki technology. This application-packaging technology basically allows customers to build on wiki collaboration, which is much more than just a MediaWiki-style wiki, as ReadWriteWeb notes.
Neither SpringSource nor MindTouch fit the old application server mold, but it's not clear customers should care. Enterprises just want to get work done.
Just as Google is shaking up e-mail with Wave and Wolfram Alpha is redefining a corner of search, so too are SpringSource and MindTouch redefining what application server means for the modern enterprise, while open-source companies like Acquia redefine Web content management, Marketcetera pushes the envelope on financial trading platforms, etc.
Open source is the new innovator, and not merely the commodifying force in the market.
Indeed, with traditional software markets perhaps reaching a critical saturation point, we may see much more "coloring outside the lines" in enterprise software from open-source projects and companies. Oracle's response has been to consolidate, but others seem to be responding with a different strategy: innovation.
Disclosure: I am an adviser to MindTouch. Red Hat is a business partner. Acquia is in some ways a competitor.
Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.