Fun with Sun in Forbes

Greenberg's Forbes article on the Sun/MySQL deal is likely to influence your boss's view of the matter - meaning that the errors and ignorance expressed in the article will ultimately affect decision making where you work.

Every once in a while you run into a comment that just begs for wider application. Take a look, for example, at this bit from Glyn Holton's "Best of 2007 Book Awards":

One embarrassing trend that has gained steam this year is that of authors who previously published successful technical finance books repackaging themselves as financial gurus and writing more populist books. This genre was launched by Nassim Taleb who published an outstanding technical book, Dynamic Hedging, about derivatives trading back in 1996. He followed that up with a pretentious book, Fooled By Randomness, that appealed to the high-school dropout, weekend trader crowd. It was a bestseller. As confirmation of how much notoriety and connections can accomplish, this year he released another pseudo-philosophical trader book: Black Swan. It is as shallow and as successful as the last book. It was even named one of BusinessWeek's top finance books for the year. Don't get me started on the state of financial journalism today ...

Well, a challenge made is a debt unpaid, right? So let me illustrate Holton's comment by quoting from the top publication in "financial journalism" for the MBA crowd: Forbes Magazine. Specifically, the opening paragraph from Andy Greenberg's January 16, 2008 piece titled Sun Snaps Up Database Firm, MySQL:

Sun Microsystems elbowed into the enterprise database market Wednesday with the announcement of a proposed $1 billion acquisition of MySQL, an open-source database software company. The deal, which Sun Chief Executive Jonathan Schwartz calls the "most important acquisition in the company's history," makes Sun one of the first major public companies to offer open-source software and puts the company head to head with the three big vendors in the $15 billion database market: IBM, SAP, and its former database partner, Oracle.

What did Browning say in a somewhat different context? Let me count the errors?

  1. The first sentence explicitly makes the claim that Sun is just now entering the database market, implicitly suggests that Sun will focus on product rather than the customer, and over simplifies MySQL's open source structure.

    Sun's purpose here is to allow MySQL to continue developing for Solaris and Linux without undue influence from Red Hat and IBM and their acquisition strategy therefore focuses on selling customer support - something Sun has done for years, and not on database product development. What Greenberg does here reverses history while mis-stating both the nature of the deal and the strategic drivers behind it.

  2. The second sentence claims that the acquisition "makes Sun one of the first major public companies to offer open-source software". Given that Forbes is pretty much the journal of record for MBAs and "the high-school dropout, weekend trader crowd", the depth of ignorance revealed here: about Sun, about open source, and about information technology in general, is enough to leave almost anyone speechless.

    Luckily, however, I can quote Ashley Vance to set the record straight - here's a bit from his register report on the deal:

    Go big picture, and you find Sun's massive open source claims legitimized. We're talking about the company that funds OpenOffice, that sells the very popular Lustre file system, that will own the most popular open source database and that provides some of the world's most sophisticated open source operating system code. I'm trying to think of a larger, proper open source company and am struggling.

    In this context, can those folks out there that hate Solaris because of its proprietary past keep up the anger? Is SAMP any less genuine as an open source stack than LAMP? I don't think so.

    (Emotional aside: Dear god, how did Red Hat let this happen? It could have solidified its place as the center of the open source universe and gained permanent leverage over the ever crucial database layer. Instead, it allowed another operating system vendor to grab the database running on most Red Hat servers. Yikes.)

  3. The second chunk from Greenberg's last sentence goes like this: [the purchase] "puts the company head to head with the three big vendors in the $15 billion database market: IBM, SAP, and its former database partner, Oracle."

    In reality the current "big three" enterprise database licensers are Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle - but Greenberg's reference to SAP isn't just wrong, it's another reality reversal.

    SAP sells mainly on Oracle, DB2, and SQL-Server but does market a database product of its own. Now called MaxDB this is not a competitive negative for Sun, but part of what Sun bought because it's still mostly a co-branded MySQL product - with 10,000 or so heavyweight corporate users around the world.

  4. The snide reference to Oracle as Sun's "former database partner" is wrong too - and again in two major ways. First it's strategically wrong because Sun is interested in selling services, not licenses, and more subtly it's wrong because Oracle's involvement with products like Innobase signal's Oracle's view of MySQL as a net positive long term contributor to Oracle's long term success.

In summary pretty much everything Greenberg says here is filtered through a soul deep mask of ignorance - but our problem is that a lot of our bosses are in his audience - and I don't expect Forbes to be publishing corrections any time soon.

What this means for us, therefore, is simply this: when the boss makes an untelligible decision, the chances are good that he's been influenced by people like Greenberg - but you won't know who; you won't know when; you won't know any more than the boss does what mistaken beliefs are driving him; and, most importantly anything you say to correct the record will count against you because Forbes you know, is a credible and independent source.