Sun’s financial problems – what comes next?

Sun has today published a press release announcing that up to 18% of its global workforce is to be cut and that Rich Green, VP of Software, has resigned.

It has also formed a new business group called Cloud Computing & Developer Platforms, for advancing its cloud services efforts.

Sun is a fascinating company, with serious commitment to open source. It is also the steward of Java, MySQL and Despite the software aspect, selling servers is a core part of its business, and its problems now (in my quick opinion) are a consequence of the economic downturn, a trend towards cheap-and-many in the server market, and a rush towards open source without any clear strategy over how to monetize it. No, I don’t believe turning runtime and application downloads into foistware and adware is the solution.

Somehow, Sun allowed competitors such as IBM and Oracle to benefit from Java without reaping equal rewards itself. It is great at innovating but less good at profiting from its invention. Java applets were the first browser-hosted client applications, but Sun did not see the need for something like JavaFX until Adobe Flash and then Microsoft Silverlight showed how this needed to evolve; now it is probably too late.

Another example is utility computing (one aspect of cloud computing), which Sun pioneered with its Grid initiative; but others such as Amazon are now setting the pace in this area.

What comes next – acquisition, recovery, or continued decline?

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OpenOffice to become adware?

From Jonathan Schwartz’s blog:

An auction’s afoot … to see who we’ll be partnering with us to integrate their businesses and brands into our binary product distribution – the possibilities are limitless: people tend to print those documents, fax them, copy them, project them (and I know this annoys my friends in the free software community, but branding allows us to invest more in community and features, from which everyone benefits).

An alarming prospect. But is meant to be free and open source. What does Schwartz mean by “our binary distribution”? Note he says not Star Office, Sun’s commercial version.

I presume it will be possible for others to step in and offer branding-free distributions of OpenOffice. I’ll go for those, thanks very much.

Contributors to put their trust in Sun and even assigned their copyright, supposedly to protect the open source status of the code. If Sun commercialises the free distribution (it can do what it likes with Star Office), that strikes me as stretching the limits of what people understand by free software.

If Sun, by Schwartz’s own admission, is willing to “annoy” its friends in the free software community, will lose a lot of momentum – I foresee forks and anger. A good day for Microsoft Office.

Then again, I may have misunderstood. I’m seeking clarification.

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Reasons to love Linux #1: package management

I posted recently about a difficult Ubuntu upgrade, drawing the comment “What do you prefer to do on Linux that you don’t on Windows?”

Today I patched the Debian server which runs this blog. APT upgraded the following applications:


Apache 2.2

Clam AntiVirus

Time Zone data (tzdata)

Some of these involve several packages, so 16 packages were updated.

Bear in mind that this is a running system, and that MySQL and Apache are in constant heavy use, mostly by WordPress.

I logged on to the terminal and typed a single command:

apt-get upgrade

The package manager took less than a minute to upgrade all the packages, which had already been downloaded via a scheduled job. Services were stopped and started as needed. No reboot needed. Job done.

I guess a few people trying to access this site got a slow response, but that was all.

Now, how long would it take to upgrade IIS, SQL Server and some server anti-virus package on Windows? What are the odds of getting away without a restart?

Admittedly this is not risk-free. I’ve known package management to get messed up on Linux, and it can take many hours to resolve – but this usually happens on experimental systems. Web servers that stick to the official stable distribution rarely have problems in my experience.

I realise that the comment really referred to desktop Linux, not server, and here the picture is less rosy. In fact, this post was inspired by a difficult upgrade, though in this case it was the entire distribution being updated. Even on the desktop though, the user experience for installing updates and applications is generally much better.

Let’s say I’m looking for an image editor. I click on Add/Remove and type a search:

I like the way the apps show popularity. I’d like a few more things like ratings and comments; but it’s a start. Inkscape looks interesting, so I check it, click Apply Changes, and shortly after I get this dialog:

I double-click, and there it is:

I admit, I did take a few moments to download an example SVG file from the W3C, just to make the screen grab look better. But provided you have broadband, and the app you want is in the list, it is a great experience.

Windows Vista has had a go at this. From Control Panel – Programs and Features you can get to Windows Marketplace, where you might search and find something like The Gimp (free)  or Sketsa SVG Editor (costs). I tried The Gimp, to be more like-with-like. I had to sign in with a Live ID even though it is free. I went through several web dialogs and ended up with a download prompt for a zipped setup. That was it.

In other words, I went through all these steps, but I still do not have The Gimp. OK, I know I have to extract the ZIP and run the setup; but Ubuntu’s Add/Remove spares me all that complication; it is way ahead in usability.

App Store on the iPhone also has it right. For the user, that is. I detest the lock-in and the business model; but usability generally wins. The online stores on games consoles, like XBox Live Marketplace, are good as well. I guess one day we will install or buy most applications this way.

Microsoft Office vs in UK education

Yesterday I took a seminar with a small number of people from schools and colleges in the UK, who had purchasing responsibility for software.

I talked about some of the history, differences between the products, the ISO standardisation wars, the ribbon, and the way Microsoft’s pricing escalates in order to charge the maximum to business users. I also mentioned online alternatives like Google docs and asked whether they could contemplate switching entirely to a web-based productivity suite.

It is always interesting talking to people with a real-world perspective, in contrast to the hothouse of Internet discussions and attempting to follow what is happening at the bleeding edge. What I found:

  • These folk knew about but none use it regularly themeselves; one had a reasonable number of students using it, but only because they were using netbooks running Linux. Not very encouraging for since the buzz is that netbooks are increasingly switching to Windows.
  • There was very little interest in ISO standards. On the other hand, there was real concern about interoperability, which is related. However, the best solution at the moment is to use Microsoft’s old binary formats throughout. Filters in MS office for OpenDocument, and in for Open XML, will be welcome.
    Incidentally, I used Office 2007 PowerPoint for the session. I tried to open the .pptx in 3.0; it worked, but there were extra borders round objects and some unwanted text. I saved from Office 2007 as .ppt, re-opened in It was perfect.
  • Some had already rolled out Office 2007, and reported that the Ribbon UI was better for new users, but caused problems for some who were familiar with the old menus. Mainly a training issue.
  • Education gets generous pricing for MS Office. There was interest in saving money by using, but the sums involved are relatively small. We discussed the ethical issue – whether it is right to get young people hooked on a product that will cost them or their businesses dearly later on – but this particular group didn’t engage with this much. Little desire to change the world; focused on getting their work done.
  • I mentioned the negative Becta report on Vista and Office 2007, which I also looked at again in preparation. I was struck again by what a poor report it is, ducking important issues and giving a rose-tinted view of ODF, though I am in sympathy with Becta’s efforts to promote choice and open source in education. However, none of this group had read the report, or even heard of it. Becta is a government organization focused on technology in education.
  • There was little enthusiasm for web-based office suites. Interest perked up a little when I mentioned Google Gears and the possibility of seamless online/offline use. One person said his school was rural and could not get broadband at all.

My overall impression is that Microsoft Office remains dominant in the institutions represented by this group, and that seems unlikely to change soon. The web-based suites have more chance of breaking the habit, since they represent a more fundamental shift than simply moving from one fat desktop application to another.

I would likely have got a better attendance for a seminar on rolling out Office 2007.

Sun distributing Microsoft toolbar, Google drops Star Office from its Pack

Microsoft has done a deal with Sun where its search toolbar is distributed with the Java runtime. The deal only applies to US Internet Explorer users who download the JRE. Previously Sun distributed the Google toolbar with Java.

Separately, as one or two have noticed, Google is no longer distributing Sun’s Star Office suite with the Google Pack. Cracks appearing in the Sun/Google relationship?

The Star Office aspect is interesting because it may (or may not) be significant for Google’s overall strategy for productivity software.

Google has its own office suite, one that works online. So why promote a competitor? Well, Star Office is a traditional desktop suite that has more features and works offline. It is also one in the eye for Microsoft and might inhibit a few Office 2007 sales. I had wondered whether Google would try some deep integration with Star Office, where you could seamlessly open and save documents to Google storage on the Internet.

Maybe Google has now decided that Star Office muddies its message, which is a pure Internet play for office applications, with offline features coming via Gears. When combined with the speed of Chrome, this has plenty of potential.

Alternatively, Star Office is just being upgraded and will be back soon. Or perhaps Sun and Google fell out over the terms. Now that Google is so dominant in search, users visit Google and get the toolbar anyway; it doesn’t need Sun’s support. All speculation; Google has yet to comment, as far as I know.

Let me add that I hate this method of promoting software, where you download one thing and get another by default. It’s called foistware.

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Run a VM on your mobile phone

VMWare has announced its Mobile Virtualization Platform for Mobile Phones. The idea is that you run apps within a virtual machine on your device:

Because VMware MVP virtualizes the hardware, handset vendors can develop a software stack with an operating system and a set of applications not tied to the underlying hardware allowing them to deploy the same software stack on a wide variety of phones without worrying about the underlying hardware differences. At the same time, by isolating the device drivers from the operating system, handset vendors can further reduce porting costs by using the same drivers irrespective of the operating system deployed on the phone.

One of the benefits claimed is the ability to switch VMs, for example between home and work versions, and the ability to migrate to a new device by copying the VM from one to another.

VMWare says the Mobile Virtual Platform (MVP) supports:

… a wide range of real-time and rich operating systems including Windows CE 5.0 and 6.0, Linux 2.6.x, Symbian 9.x, eCos, µITRON NORTi and µC/OS-II.

No mention of Apple or iPhone, of course.

Update: I got a little more info from VMWare about this. This is a bare metal VM, so there is no host OS as such. The implication is that you cannot run both the VM and another OS, as on a PC; the VM in effect replaces the OS. This isn’t a product you will be able to buy for your mobile; it will come pre-installed, presuming VMWare is successful in marketing it to mobile phone manufacturers and telecom providers.

The technology comes from a company called Trango which VMWare has acquired. There is a bit more information about the product on Trango’s site.

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Windows is an adventure game

Many video games in the adventure genre are in essence collecting games. You have to get the gem to open the gate, and to get the gem you need the three pieces of tablet, etc etc.

Windows is like this sometimes. I want to try Windows Azure. I need SQL Express. I download SQL Express 2008. Try to run, it tells me I need Windows Installer 4.5. I download Windows Installer 4.5. Try to run, it tells me “The system cannot find the file specified.”

This makes me pause. Is it a broken download, or is my system broken? Maybe it’s because I downloaded to a network drive. Yup – copy it to a local drive, and it runs fine. This is the adventure game equivalent of a puzzle.

Now the dialog says, “You must restart your computer for the updates to take effect.” To be continued, then.

Shame Microsoft hasn’t (as far as I know) issued a VM image with all this ready to go.

Code for Mac Cocoa in Visual Studio – surprised to see this?

I grabbed this screenshot from a preview just installed:

Cocoa app in Visual Studio

It comes from Delphi Prism, a new product from Embarcadero/Codegear which lets you code for .NET using the Delphi language, an object-oriented version of Pascal. The product is not as new as it first appears. It is based on an existing product from RemObjects, called Oxygene, which it now replaces.

Here’s the story in a nutshell. 2003: Borland, the company which created Delphi, decides (rightly) that .NET is here to stay, and releases Delphi 8, a pure .NET version. Nobody wants it, because it has no advantages to speak of over Win32 Delphi (which is faster), or C#, which is the Microsoft .NET language.

At that time some voices muttered that what Borland should do is to integrate Delphi into Visual Studio, rather than doing its own .NET IDE.  One was Marc Hoffman at RemObjects, only he did more than mutter: his company developed its own implementation of Delphi Pascal for Visual Studio, called Chrome.

Borland soldiers on with Delphi 2005, which does both .NET and Win32 in a single IDE. Developers are happy to have a new Win32 Delphi, but most still don’t see the point of the .NET stuff. Further, Delphi 2005 is buggy; many stick with Delphi 7. Next comes Delphi 2006: more of the same, but less buggy.

There’s a couple of problems with Delphi’s .NET support. First, it is always out-of-date compared to Microsoft’s .NET tools. Second, it has component library schizophrenia. There’s VCL for .NET, based on Delphi’s component and GUI library, but that’s not compatible with .NET components built for Windows Forms. There’s Windows Forms, but that’s not compatible with existing Delphi code. Borland decides to deprecate use of Delphi .NET with Windows Forms. This is really for VCL developers, it says.

Next comes Delphi 2007. Nice product, but where’s .NET? Gone. Nobody seems to mind [and it turns up later in RAD Studio 2007*]. Delphi 2009, gone again. But now there’s Prism, and it is a complete U-turn. Forget VCL.NET. It uses standard .NET libraries, runs in Visual Studio, supports Windows Forms, ASP.NET, WPF, and soon Silverlight. Oh, and it’s based on what that other guy did back in 2004, with some Borland Codegear Embarcadero technology thrown in: dbExpress database framework, client support for DataSnap multi-tier applications, and the Blackfish pure .NET database engine.

Very good; but there’s still that awkward question: why not use C#? The answer, I guess, being either that you love coding in the Delphi language, or you want to use one of the Delphi-compatible libraries.

Or that you want to use Mono, which of course is what enables those tasty Mac options in the New Project dialog above. You can also use C# with Mono – possibly you should, since it is Mono’s core language – but in Prism it comes nicely integrated into Visual Studio. Well, somewhat nicely. In practice there are a few extra steps you need to take to get it working. The recommendation is to run Visual Studio in a VM on a Mac, since Windows cannot run Cocoa applications. And you’re going to be using Apple’s Interface Builder; there’s no GUI designer in Visual Studio itself.

Hardly enterprise-ready then; but still an intriguing development.

*Added correction thanks to John Moshakis’ comment below.

Death of Eclipse Application Lifecycle Framework good for vendors, bad for customers

It’s a shame that the Eclipse ALF (Application Lifecycle Framework) project has closed:

… given the level of community participation, the appropriate course for ALF is to close down the project. Unfortunately, our recent efforts did not identify potential contributors willing to justify keeping the project active.

says project lead Brian Carroll. The project aimed to enable interoperability between ALM (Application Lifecycle Management) tools from different vendors. Here’s the problem statement from the project page:

Application development today is achieved through the use of numerous tools from software vendors, open source communities and some are even home grown. Getting these tools to work together is an integration problem that has never been solved. Each vendor and open source project creates their own API standards and many hours of effort are required to create even the most straightforward of integrations.

The problem is real, so why the lack of participation? Of the major ALM vendors, only Serena gave it serious backing. The project could not succeed without either IBM, or a solid alliance of IBM’s competitors.

My interpretation: those ALM vendors will have considered whether it was really in their interests to help customers integrate their tools with those from rivals. Good for customers, yes, but vendors want to keep you hooked on their product suites. “Buy more from us, it integrates with what you have already” is a great sales point. Since only the participation of those vendors could make ALF work, the project was doomed.

It is another manifestation of what CEO Marc Benioff calls “an aspect of our industry”.

Everyone loves standards, right?

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