Several people in and outside the OSGi want application grouping. They want to be able to deploy a set of bundles as an "application". These "applications" should have some scoping on class loading and service issues. I am opposed to this but, as Eric Newcomer pointed out to me last week in Dublin, I never really made my case and shown a solution to some of the valid requirements. So, here it is ...
Back to basics. In the beginning, OSGi was about providing functionality to a device. Adding bundles would add more functions and removing bundles would get rid of those functions. Key was that these bundles would collaborate, they would not just be started and running in some silo container; ignorant of their siblings around them. However, these bundles would not have a priori knowledge of each other because the business idea was that different service providers would supply them independently.
The only way you can make this work is if you have a communication model that allows you to very loosely couple the bundles. This was the service model. The service model is very simple: the producer registers some object under an interface and the consumer gets it through the interface. The implementation is safely hidden, the consumer has no clue. Unfortunately, this service model required rules about class loading because those service interfaces involve classes and you better make sure that the producer and the consumer both share the same class loader for that interface/class. It was never the original intention to share implementation classes between bundles because bundles were supposed to communicate through services with a minimal interface to promote loose coupling. Sharing implementation classes was more or less an unintended side effect. Prior to R4 we could not even support multiple versions of the same exported package because that need is not very acute in a service oriented world program.
In the meantime at plain Java, the poor man's extension model became Class.forName. Where the OSGi model offers the services to the consumer, in the poor man's model the consumer creates the services through dynamic class loading, albeit with the indirection of some XML or other text file. This, alas, requires implementation visibility into the provider bundle.
The popularity of this Class.forName extension model makes the OSGi class loaders on steroids the most attractive aspect of OSGi for many people. However, having to export implementation classes from a bundle obviously opens huge holes in the modularity story, suddenly you are exporting implementation classes to the world. This makes the coupling a lot less loose.
My personal feeling is that application models are only trying to patch up these modularity holes with an emergency bandage. This is like drinking heavily and then taking aspirine against the headache. Maybe less drinking would be healthier?
This said, there is of course a concept of applicationness, otherwise not so many people would demand it. However, I do feel that the bundle is the right granularity for application granularity. A good bundle provides one or more functions and expresses dependencies on other bundles through services. That is all, no other primitives are needed (the services imply one or more Java packages). If I want to run an application I pick a bundle that provides me with the right functionality. Systems like OBR can then be used to find bundles that provide the needed services.
Dynamic dependency resolving is needed to create flexible systems. One of the key problems with an application model is that it fixes the application to a specific set of bundles; making it applicable to only one environment and thereby limiting severely the overall reusability.
One of the key issues is of course testing. Many companies want to be able to send a set of bundles to QA and be sure that that is exactly the set that will be deployed on the target system. I do understand this issue. However, I think that the best solution to this requirement is to run these bundles in a framework, or even a VM, of their own. In certain cases, it is even wise to just wrap up all the bundles into one so you are sure they can not be separated. From a modularity perspective, if these bundles are so closely coupled together, why separate them?
Fortunately, the EGs have come up with a model that seems to fit the needs to scope a set of bundles: nested frameworks. They are currently investigating a solution where you can create new frameworks inside an existing framework with relatively little cost. This solution seems to be very unintrusive to the spec because it adds a feature but does not (I hope) influence the existing features, at least not in a major way. Nested framework allow a managing framework to create nested frameworks for each "application". Services can be shared between frameworks by using the existing notification mechanisms and registering the service in alternative frameworks. Even packages could be shared with the
To conclude. I think the demand for an application model is largely driven by problems that are caused by the Class.forName extension model and tight coupling that caused developers to share implementation classes. Even after ten years I think that the bundle-service model of OSGi is the cleanest solutions to software development that I know. I do hope that we will not dilute this model by patching OSGi to support the lesser implementation class sharing model. Then again, with nested frameworks we all can seem to get what we want!