Gosling Leaves Google for Liquid Robotics

Just five months after joining Google, Java creator James Gosling chose to move on. His new employer is start-up company Liquid Robotics. What this means for the future of Google – and Oracle’s lawsuit with the search company over Java technology in Google’s Android operating system – is unclear.

According to Gosling’s blog post on the subject, this was no easy decision. He has nothing but positive words to say about his experience at Google and the people there, “but I met some folks outside doing something completely outrageous,” which is why he’s now working at the robotics company. What is Liquid Robotics doing that Gosling finds so inspiring?

Interestingly, the company seems to be doing the same kind of thing on the oceans that Google’s mapping vehicles are doing on the ground. “They have a growing fleet of autonomous vehicles that rove the ocean collecting data from a variety of onboard sensors and uploading it to the cloud,” Gosling wrote.

Unlike Google’s mapping vehicles, however, these ocean-going vehicles – called “Wave Gliders” – are doing a lot more than just taking pictures. One set of autonomous robots, for example, is cruising around the Gulf of Mexico checking water chemistry. Fueled by the energy from ocean waves, moving at one to two knots, and able to stay out for years at a time, these little vessels can collect a lot of data.

Gosling’s role at Liquid Robotics is as chief software architect. “I’ll be involved in both the onboard software – sensing, navigation and autonomy – and in the datacenter, dealing with the in-rush of data,” he explained. It sounds exactly like the kind of challenge that someone of Gosling’s skill and talent would find both exciting and hard to resist.

Gosling probably also appreciated the opportunity to see at least one familiar face. Liquid Robotics boasts Bill Vass as its CEO; Vass, like Gosling, worked at Sun. Vass believes that Gosling’s addition to the team will help “revolutionize global oceanic knowledge on a scale and dimension unknown in history.” Data from Liquid Robotics is already being used by such respectable organizations as the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), among others. The company has also benefited from a $22 million round of financing earlier this year.

The move seems to be a positive one for both Gosling and Liquid Robotics. With Vass insisting that his company’s vehicles can collect and transmit many, many different types of data – water temperature, wave heights, whale song, and chemical levels, just to name a few – this particular Silicon Valley start-up seems to have a bright future. Imagine thousands of Wave Gliders in the ocean at one time, all collecting data – data to which Liquid Robotics can sell access. This particular business plan could quickly make the company profitable. It’s not hard to envision Liquid Robotics as a company that uses the profits gained from the bread-and-butter end of the business (paying customers) to help finance other, more open-source projects that take advantage of the data.

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It’s hard to fault Gosling’s decision, at least from his own perspective. True, he’s leaving a senior position at Google for a start-up, with all of the risks and likely cut in pay that accompanies this decision. But as he explained to Ben Worthen, writing a blog for the Wall Street Journal, “I’m at the point in my career where fun is a lot more important to me.”

The move, however, could leave Google in a bit of a bind, at least according to some observers. Gosling left Sun after Oracle acquired the company, under acrimonious circumstances. From his description, one gathers that Gosling did not have the kind of freedom to work in the style and on the kinds of projects he preferred. One gets the sense that Gosling felt micro-managed, likely due to significant differences in the corporate culture between Sun and Oracle.

Oracle’s acquisition of Sun, nevertheless, led to the former acquiring Sun’s intellectual property, and many observers believed that it strengthened Oracle’s ongoing case against Google concerning certain patents and use of Java-related technology in Google Android. Thus, when Google lured Gosling away from Oracle, it was seen as potentially strengthening Google’s hand in the courtroom, or at least the search company’s already-strong credibility and reputation among the open-source community. The effect of Gosling’s latest career move on the Oracle vs. Google lawsuit remains unclear.

For his part, Gosling blessed Oracle’s recent release of Java SE 7, the first major upgrade to the language in five years. He did so not because of any specific new capabilities, however, but simply because the company finally got it done: “Java SE 7 is important not for any particular feature but for the fact that Oracle was able to bust the political logjam in the JCP [Java Community Process] that has delayed it for so very long.” With Java 8 promised for 2012 under Oracle’s stewardship, the future of Java may be in good hands after all.

As for Google, they have no bad words at all about Gosling leaving them. Indeed, according to eWeek, there’s no reason to be angry. In the eWeek piece, Clint Boulton cites an industry source as saying that Gosling was not involved in the lawsuit between Google and Oracle at all; he was simply hired because he’s an excellent engineer. In that sense, Gosling’s loss might be felt strongest at Google on Android-related projects, where some hoped his special touch might help take things to the next level.

Boulton also noted that Google CEO Larry Page is trimming back on certain cool projects (such as Google Labs) to streamline operations, which might have weighed in Gosling’s concerns. On the other hand, with Liquid Robotic’s focus on collecting and disseminating data – and undeniable coolness – Boulton thinks it’s even possible that Google might acquire the company someday. If they did, there’s little doubt that Gosling would receive a warm welcome from his former, if brief, employer.

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