We all thought Java was open source. Think again. Joel West points out that:
Throughout its lifespan, Sun always had a schizophrenic view of open standards. Some of the things it did were very open, like giving away specs and/or implementations of things like RPC and NFS. Some of the things were traditional proprietary licensing models — akin to Microsoft or Intel — with SPARC chips, Solaris and the like.
On the other hand, Sun’s use of open source was always semi-open, as I noted in 2003 in my most oft-cited open source paper. In fact, Sonali Shah (now of U. Washington) coined the term “gated source” to refer to Sun’s use of open source-like approaches inside an extranet during the past 15 years or so.
Oracle's patent suit against Google seems to have taken many by surprise. I'm neither surprised nor stunned. If anything, I am surprised it has taken Oracle this long to saddle up its lawyers.
...if you zoom out a bit you see where this is headed. Apple’s HTC lawsuit has a heavy dose of Android in it. Oracle is suing Google over the Java in Android. In journalism, there’s a saying that three makes a trend. Rest assured there will be another patent suit lobbed at Android from various parties. Android is on a tear, but Google may wind up licensing some patents along the way.
What will happen with Oracle and Google? For starters, Oracle can play the courtroom game well—see Oracle vs. SAP/TomorrowNow for instance. Google could fight, but it may be far more expedient to just license the patents. Notice how quickly the Microsoft-Salesforce.com patent scrum was settledeven though Marc Benioff called the software giant a thug. Assuming Oracle’s points are valid, Google may just pay up and move along.
I'd go much further but before doing so let's back up a touch.
Google is certainly a Big Dog in the software business but it has made its bones on the presumption that software is (pretty much) free to use. At least at the consumer level. It makes a play at the enterprise with Google Apps and now with Android. It doesn't take too much imagination to realize that pressured CXOs might be forgiven for thinking that if they can divest themselves of office productivity applications at minimal run on cost then what next?
Speaking with open source advocate Simon Wardley, his opinion comes in two parts:
- This is part of the normal banter between interested parties and what we're seeing is the outcome of talks that broke down
- Oracle is readying itself to become a PaaS play, doesn't have a current offering and is therefore testing the waters to see if it can make Java - its cornerstone - stand up as a proprietary offering.
Simon asserts: "This has to be a concern - customers are heavily reliant upon Java which is taught widely in teaching institutions. The good news is that it will encourage the development of open source platform stacks and that has to be a good thing."
If Simon is correct and Oracle wins then it brings into question whether there will be more lawsuits aimed at the likes of Springsource, VMWare and even Microsoft itself on the basis of whatever Java it has in Azure. Mary-Jo Foley thinks Microsoft must be rubbing its hands with glee:
Even though the Redmondians have no love for Oracle and consider the company one of Microsoft’s foremost competitors, any attack on Google is no doubt a plus in Microsoft execs’ eyes. Oracle’s move gives Windows Phone 7 more air cover. Microsoft likely will benefit from the fallout of the suit to some degree as developers and customers wonder and worry about the fate of Android-based phones. The Oracle vs. Google lawsuit also may boost the Microsoft .Net to a degree, as .Net’s No. 1 rival is Java.
In back channel conversations, colleagues are asking: what about IBM and SAP? These are good questions and I can only imagine that lawyers at both companies are carefully examining their potential exposure. When Oracle was tilting at Sun, Vishal Sikka, SAP board member and CTO warned:
To ensure the continued role of Java in driving economic growth, we believe it is essential to transition the stewardship of the language and platform into an authentically open body that is not dominated by an individual corporation. Java should be free of any encumbrances to permit fair competition between compatible implementations for the benefit of customers. By preserving the integrity of Java, the IT industry can ensure a vibrant developer community and continued innovation for enterprise software customers. This ensures the continued global economic success brought about through open innovation.
Will SAP be next in the cross hairs?
It concerns me that Karen Tillman, head of Oracle PR is positioned as point on this. Given the potential for this lawsuit to represent a 'pebble in the pond' scenario, surely Oracle board members should be stating a position?
More broadly, Oracle's persistent use of the legal hammer must be of concern to everyone in the IT industry and customers alike. Sure, the company has deep pockets but is this the future of IT business? Have we reached a point where developers might fear the lines of code they write in case they trip up over someone's patent/copyright claim? And what does this mean for buyers that customize using Java? Could it mean that Oracle comes knocking on their door looking for a financial slice of the pie?
The usual course of IT lawsuits ends up with one company paying another. I have to wonder whether this case might be one of the very few that runs its course. Google can afford it, so can Oracle. Let the games begin.