CRIKEY! He can swallow whole companies! But not communities.

CRIKEY! He can swallow whole companies! But not communities.

Summary: Boy, what a big beautiful snake he is, mates. He eats multi-billion dollar companies with all their assets, WHOLE.


Boy, what a big beautiful snake he is, mates. He eats multi-billion dollar companies with all their assets, WHOLE. But even big old  Constrictus Siliconvallis cannot squeeze the Open Source community.

So, suffice to say, the Sun Microsystems story didn't end the way I would have liked it to end today. What can I say, I'm utterly dumbstruck. I feel just like I did when walked out of the theater as a child after seeing the Empire Strikes Back for the very first time. No, this cannot be the end of the Rebel Alliance, can it?  There's gonna be another movie where the bad guys get their asses kicked, right? RIGHT?

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

For a number of reasons, most of which are related to my professional life outside of what I write about on ZDNet, I've been reluctant to talk about the issue for a number of weeks. This is not to say I haven't spoken about it before -- I most certainly have -- but it would have been inappropriate for me to comment while any number of rumors about potential suitors were flying about.

So that being said, this morning Oracle made its intentions to swallow Sun Microsystems whole, as it was a giant constrictor snake that was going to squeeze it, its customers and its competitors and anyone who participated in Sun's ecosystem -- and in particular, anyone who lived within the sphere of influence of Java, OpenOffice, MySQL, Solaris, and anything else of Sun's that was Open Source.

Various predictions have been made about how the merged Oracle and Sun will act against its competitors and what it will do with its Open Source properties and how alliances will be forged and broken. I'm not going to make any prognostications about who stands to lose what or what defensive actions are going to be taken by these supposedly spurned companies, because it's way too early for armchair quarterbacking. Quite frankly, recent events strike me as so weird and Kafka-esque that what corporations do these days in what they believe to be in their own and their customers' best interests make very little sense to me anymore, so I'm not going to try to understand them. At least, not today.

However, while Sun is indeed going to be swallowed whole by Oracle, assuming it is able to complete the transaction -- it can also be said that just because Oracle can throw $7 billion in dollars and change (the extra change presumably needed as billowing material for the golden parachutes for those-who-will-not-be-named) doesn't mean it will have any real and lasting impact on the Open Source Community -- which seems to be the subject of greatest concern.

The Open Source Community's strength has always been in its numbers and the will of developers contributing to projects to drive project initiatives in the direction they desire simply by voting with their time and willingness to contribute. If a project no longer meets their requirements, be it from a licensing or political perspective, they simply cease working on it and go onto other things that interest them instead.

That is the beauty of of Open Source, in that it is pure Social Darwinism and Software Phylogenetics at work. Even if you have a bunch of large natural predators, such as Constrictus Siliconvallis, it's not possible for them to swallow entire communities, even if they buy the companies that run the projects themselves. And like evolutionary trees, if projects are to be compared to Phyla, they do indeed branch off. Sometimes because developers get pissed off, like in the case of XFree86 forking into, Debian forking into Ubuntu, or forking into These are but a few well-known examples, and there are countless others. Heck, every version of BSD is a fork of the original, because each set of developers had different design goals in mind.

So let's get down to the projects that people are worried about. Certainly, Java, which was released by Sun under GPL2 in 2007 is one of concern because the Java Specification Requests which formalize the standardization of the language in order to be certified as "Kosher" Java is controlled by Sun under the Java Community Process (JCP) which is presumably going to be run by Oracle shortly. What this means is if you want to build a Java Virtual Machine that is certified as actual Java in the future, or propose new additions to Java, you'll have to play the same game with Oracle that you've been playing with Sun all this time. If Oracle is actually smart, they'll make it easier for companies to participate in this process. Then nobody will complain about the swallowing.

Many people use the official Sun JVM, but some companies have licensed "Kosher" Java as defined under the JCP and JSRs and built their own. IBM, for example, has its J9, which it uses with its Websphere Application Server (WAS). Unisys has also built its own version for large SMP systems, although it has not been updated in some time.  It should also be noted that a fully Open Source, Free GPL2 JVM has been released as OpenJDK and IcedTea and only has a very small amount of legal "encumberances" left in it before it can be considered a completely self-hosting environment and free of any dependent pieces that are in binary-only form.

The question of course remains is if Oracle will continue in Sun's tradition with the OpenJDK, permit it to be fully recognized as an implementation of "Kosher" Java and if it will allow the JCP to continue as normally or even in a more open and collaborative manner, as some of it's critics would hope. Indeed, If it throttles back and Oracle follows its usual constrictus siliconvallis instincts, that doesn't mean it's the end the world. It means that like many projects before it, IcedTea and OpenJDK will inevitably fork, and some other organization will issue its own JCP and JSR replacement.

Java has already had several "Nonkosher" implementations, some of which have been fairly successful in their own right for limited applications. One of which is Google's Dalvik, which is is a Java syntax-compatible virtual machine similar to J2ME but is incompatible enough with Java -- as it uses a totally different bytecode format -- that it cannot be fully declared by the JCP or Sun as Java.

Dalvik, which is Apache licensed, is currently only used on Android devices, but I see no reason why Dalvik Enterprise Edition could not be built by an aspiring community on existing J2EE specifications that did essentially the same thing for enterprise server systems. Sun's officials have already complained that Google's App Engine lacks certain features for complete Java compatibility, so if Oracle decides to get aggressive and open it's maw a little too wide, I could certainly see a DEE or "D" language in the offing. Good Bye Java and the JCP, Hello Dalvik and DCP. IBM and Apache has already created its own Apache-licensed J2SE class library with Harmony. Now all that's missing is an Apache-licensed Pseudo-Java virtual machine to go with it.

And MySQL? Well, MySQL has already forked, by MySQL's creator, Monty Widenius, in the form of MariaDB. I don't see why if reptillus larryellisonus decides to kill off MySQL for the purposes of furthering Oracle's own RDBMS that MariaDB cannot take its place practically overnight, just as did for XFree86 in every Linux distribution in existence.

Indeed, Oracle owns InnoDB, a powerful and commonly used enterprise storage engine for MySQL that MariaDB doesn't have, which sets it at something of a disadvantage up front, but there's no reason that some interested party -- a rather large carnivorous snake hunter -- of which I can name six or seven off the top of my head -- wouldn't want to contribute time, dollars and effort into building one to compete with it.

Will Oracle be the snake that snaps the neck of Open Source? Or is the community too strong and adaptive even for this fearsome predator? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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Topics: Software Development, Open Source, Oracle


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Basic flaw of free software

    "If a project no longer meets their requirements, be it from a licensing or political perspective, they simply cease working on it and go onto other things that interrest them instead."

    Basically, there is no real tie to those who may have come to rely on continued maintenance of the software.

    When a business makes software, it will tend to continue to work on it and 'improve' it while people are still wanting to buy it. When programmers only decide whether they will work on it, it dies when their interest wanes.

    Comparison to Darwinism misses the main evolutionary thrust that survival of the species (software) is governed by satisfaction of needs (livelihood). Just doing stuff because it feels good does not keep a species going.

    How does free software fulfill Maslow's hierarchy of needs for programmers? It only really viable when all the basic needs have been fulfilled by other means. That is, when it has become purely discretionary for each individual programmer. But how does that ensure the continution of the programmer species?
    • If your business depends on it...

      Then picking up the development and maintenance is going to "feel better" then going out of business.

      If you can't do it yourself, you can outsource the work. Money will motivate them.
      • How would they afford it?

        If a company is using free software as part of their business model how on earth would they be able to afford to *pay* someone to maintain and update abandon FOSS?

        The company will discover that companies like Microsoft and Oracle provide them economy of scale, because many people are paying for their *proprietary* products, thus it is cheaper than maintaining their own.
        • Are you saying you prefer no access to the source code?

          I'll say this. If you are the only company out there that cares about this abandoned FOSS (and so can't distribute with others the costs to improve it), then perhaps you should start considering migrating. With open source, you can migrate away much easier because the lock-in is not there to trip you up.

          The best defense if you fear this scenario is to use FOSS that is popular because then there will be many people that will be in a similar boat.

          Of course, lots of company go out of business and people continue to use the software. If you have to pick between having the source code and not having it, how could there be a question? It's free source code, dude! Free blueprints! People used to pay lots of money to get the source code in the past (many companies refusing to even put a price tag on it).

          Do you know how much of a better job you can do safeguarding and maintaining something if you have access to the source code to answer any question you might have whose answer you can't find elsewhere? And how about the confidence level? Seeing is believing. First hand access beats second or third hand. Your eyes are more trustworthy than what your vendor says or keeps quiet. Get a company to help you out. They will not be able to have their way with you. And if you have developers on board, they now have access to a treasure trove of what their peers have written.

          If closed source vendors don't trust me. I don't trust them.

          On the benefits of Linux to users of Monopolyware:

          Linux has forced Microsoft to keep XP around and to lower their prices. They still abuse the customers way much because of all the secrets and levers they have. If Microsoft doesn't change aggressively, however, they will go out of business within the next decade because they are addicted to monopoly profits that are being threatened. They can't illegally leverage their monopolies by lowering prices to drive out of the business a product that won't be driven away.
    • Open Source does not = Free

      Many small companies on a shoe string budget may avail themselve of the "free" availability of Open Source, but in the end if it is really usefull and helps them succeed they will end up pouring money and resources to improve it.

      An other advantage of Open Source is that if the original developer abandons it someone else that has a use and need for it can easily take over its improvement.

      I own some really usefull "commercial" apps which are orphaned by their vendors thus leaving me stuck!
      • How

        Do you find the abandoned and get them the improvements?
        • How? You advertize.

          If no one really cares about something enough to improve it for free, then you can support if for $$.

          Linux is so much easier to support than Windows. You can do a lot more when you have the source code.
    • Good comment

      Your commnet has good merit, but the same could go for proprietary software. It's often the case when a company decides to replace one technology with another and drop support for the prior one. This of course forces you to migrate to the new technology. Survival of the fittest, perhaps.

      I think that open source projects have greater longevity in that its survival doesn't depend on a single organization governed by monetary limits but rather a constantly changing community. As long as there are users of a technology and there is a requirement for support, there'll be developers whom will provide the necessary services.
      General C#
      • Well stated...

        As long as its useful someone is going to maintain it. If its at the heart of a larger business they may pull it in themselves.
        • Wrong

          [i]As long as its useful someone is going to maintain it.[/i]

          In the FOSS world as long as it is *interesting* people will maintain it. There are plenty of useful things that get abandoned or are never birthed in the FOSS world.
          • Like what?

            Name me half a dozen that meet this criteria?
    • Great post!

      I would like to add one more perspective to consider about software in general that I think is critical when thinking about various models.

      Developing software is a service, not a product.

      This is why GPLed OSS will never become pervasive.

      If you think of software as a service provided by developers you can then understand that people will not continually provide a free service that is popular and pervasive. Because that service has a monetary value.

      As we are seeing with the collapse of Sun the current iteration of FOSS is not a good business model. The bulk of business oriented FOSS development was created by paid developers, not volunteers. Being unable to capitalize on the work of these employees, due to the fascist requirements of the GPL.

      On the other side of the same coin I most certainly believe that OSS will become the rule and not the exception. However the pervasive OSS of the future will come along the lines of the BSD and Microsoft type license, not the GPL type license.
    • This argument is flawed

      > Basically, there is no real tie to those who
      > may have come to rely on continued
      > maintenance of the software.

      The point about open source is simple. If I am a non-tech user I will rely on support form 3rd parties. There are plenty companies snapping around the fringes of Linux just like there are round Windows.

      A stoppage of development doesn't imply that support ceases.

      And development need not stop: If there us sufficient interest in a community they can take a project over, either co-devloping further improvements or paying a programmer to do the work.

      If you purchase a product you get it in binary form only and if the company goes down further development is pretty much impossible.

      MS may have stopped support for 2000, and is hovering over the demise of XP, but there are 3rd parties whio will continue to help long after MS pulls the plug.

      This argument doens;t wind back in time indefinitely: you wouldn;t keep 95 because most modernn apps will fail to run on it. But there are still people happily using 95 because it (and seriously old versions of Office etc) continue to meet their requirements.

      Go onto Sourceforge and you'll find entire communities of programmers working on projects. Some even get paid to do so. The program's freeware but support for it isn't. And an interest group is larger than any one member. And you can build a business model around products which are ostensibly freeware.

      Why would Novell support Opensuse? It's not as simple as doing down Microsoft.
    • Open model is so much more efficient for everyone else

      You have little clue about how open source works. Even Microsoft tries to trick users into doing free work for them by testing products and providing feedback (and many users fall for it).

      With Linux, however, many more users contribute. [Including many users with specialized skills whose job is performed as they improve this software they are using daily.] With Linux, users that contribute get a lot more back. It pays for many to contribute and have their changes be carried forward from upstream because these contributions aren't the secret sauces of their business. For their effort, they get lots of extra free testing for features they needed (and more contributions back from others) and become a little bit more experts in the software they use and get recognized for such expertise.

      Aren't laws open to the public? Yet we all know the lawyers who write them usually make a lot of money.

      It's called the support model, the customization model, the value-add model, the higher user productivity fix your own problems model, the sell something else but use software to draw customers model, the open arena competition model ("my product is better than your product".. practiced by the same people that can afford to compete at a high level without making money directly or perhaps do so through sponsorships and other business models).

      The money still exists but has shifted away from costly licenses sold by a single group and based on secrets kept from the end users to a model where everyone can contribute and gain. The closed model is not an efficient model and society is rejecting it.

      The era of alchemy and being treated by vendors as if you are the enemy from whom they must keep secrets and place many restraints is coming to an end. Open collaboration is taking over.

      Monopolysoft supporters have a choice to keep their eyes closed and sink with the ship or wake up and bail.
  • Open Source never dies--it just forks. :)

    Time to bone up on MariaDB!
  • RE: CRIKEY! He can swallow whole companies! But not communities.

    doesn?t mean it will have any real and lasting impact on the Open Source Community
    Doesn't mean it will not either!
    • Perhaps you could explain?

      The author went on to explain why it "doesn?t mean it will have any real and lasting impact on the Open Source Community." Perhaps you could elaborate on your thoughts as to the impact you see this having?

      -- Sean
      just another guy
  • Microsoft - perfect counter example

    "When a business makes software, it will tend to continue to work on it and 'improve' it while people are still wanting to buy it."

    This may seem true, but it is demonstrably false. There are many examples Microsoft provides, but the perfect one is Visual Basic 6. Many small businesses and consultancies depended on and continued to sell VB6 written products. Despite the demand, Microsoft depreciated it in favor of their new shiny and expensive toy

    The advantage of open source is not that it is free in beer, but free in speech. The source is available, freely modifiable, and distributable. If there are enough interested businesses/people, they can pick up development from the original sponsoring company/person. I have no doubt if Microsoft had open sourced VB6, a large and flourishing community would have developed around it.
    • As another example....

      ASP dropped for ASP.Net. And we still have vendor that has us on an ASP app at my job. I have told them we need to be looking at something else.
    • VB6...

      is pretty clumsy at best. It is out-dated and not fit for most purposes. VB.Net is a worthy replacement, and has been around for quite some time now-- almost a decade.

      BTW, I can understand the "shiny" bit, but where do you get "expensive" from, since both the run-time as well as the compiler are available for free... free as in beer.

      As an aside, I think the biggest detractor of FOSS is the lack of any kind of roadmap that a lot of companies rely upon.

      A close second is innovation. AFAIK, most FOSS is very(?) good at reinventing the wheel, but one thing it isn't good at is innovation.

      Most of the innovation in FOSS is driven by large, corporate entities. I am thinking of Sun, IBM and Google here.

      Before people jump down my throat defending innovation in FOSS, let me clarify that I am thinking of things the produce a step-change in the way we use computers in work and at play.

      In summation, I think FOSS is to the software industry as Toyota Prius is to Hollywood celebrities, i.e., a lot of hype but not much to write home about in the end.

      PS: The Prius is less fuel efficient and dirtier than most modern diesel-engined cars.