The end of Sun’s bold open source experiment

This is a sad day for Sun. It sought to re-invent its business through open source; and the experiment has failed, culminating not in a re-invigorated company, but instead acquisition by an old-school proprietary software company, Oracle.

It is possible to build a successful business around open source software. Zend is doing it with PHP; Red Hat has done it with Linux. These are smaller companies though, and they have not tried to migrate an older business built on a proprietary model. A further complication is that Sun is a hardware business, and although open source is an important part of its hardware strategy as well as its software strategy, it is a different kind of business.

Maybe the strategy was good, but it was the recession, or the server market, that killed Sun. In the end it does not make any difference, the outcome is what counts.

Reading the official overview of the deal, I see lots of references to “open” and “standard-based”, which means nothing, but no mention of open source.

The point of interest now is what happens to Sun’s most prominent open source projects:, MySQL, Java and OpenSolaris. Developers will be interested to see what happens to NetBeans, the open source Java IDE, following the Oracle acquisition, and how it will relate to Oracle’s JDeveloper IDE. These open source projects have a momentum of their own and are protected by their licenses, but a significant factor is what proportion of the committers – those who actually write the software and commit their changes to the repository – are Sun employees. Although it is not possible to take back open source code, it is possible to reduce investment, or to start creating premium editions available only to commercial subscribers, which already appeared to be part of MySQL’s strategy.

I presume that both OpenOffice and Java will feature in Oracle’s stated intention to build an end-to-end integrated solution:

Oracle will be the only company that can engineer an integrated system – applications to disk – where all the pieces fit and work together so customers do not have to do it themselves. Our customers benefit as their systems integration costs go down while system performance, reliability and security go up.

says CEO Larry Ellison, who also says nothing about open source. This will involve invading Microsoft’s turf – something Sun was always willing to do, but not particularly successful at executing.

The best outcome for the open source community will be if Oracle continues to support Sun’s open source projects along the same lines as before. Even if that happens, the industry has lost a giant of the open source world.

Some good comments from Redmonk’s Michael Coté here.

2 thoughts on “The end of Sun’s bold open source experiment”

  1. Yes, the industry has lost an open source giant. But, now, I think sooner or later we will have to see whether or not the children born out of this giant (projects like NetBeans, Glassfish, OpenSolaris, OpenDS, OpenESB, OpenOffice, to mention just a few) will be capable of surviving no matter what lays ahead. Now, for most (if not all) of these projects we will have to see whether or not there is a real community willing to fill the void that might be left if/when project funding by Sun^WOracle will be drastically cut down. From that point, the more I think of it, the more I come to the conclusion that, for the open source community, the best thing to happen would be small, active communities either migrating or forking any of the projects in question, starting with Java, to further on maintain them in a community / consortium / foundation like approach (ASF, ObjectWeb, …). Most of these pieces of technology are way too valuable to be put at stake simply because of some company being acquired by some other. If, and, in my opinion, only if this point eventually could be reached, these projects could come to reliable life not depending upon the mercy of Oracle product policy. After all, the success of applications and tools like Tomcat or Eclipse has proven this generally is possible, and in the end and as an outcome of this, I expect people adhering to open source being even more cautious not just in software being “open source” but also project governance being done by some community not just a single business entity which, being acquired or closing down business or whatever, eventually could take down the whole project.

  2. What SUN *must* do is keep the Java brand safe from corporate control. That will decide a lot of things. Put that into the agreement or sink the whole community while you sell yourself.
    “Java” and “OpenJDK” need to stay”Java” and “OpenJDK”, not “OpenOracleKit”.

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