The first time I ever heard Scott McNealy, Sun visionary and front-man, was at a speech he gave a few years ago at SCO Forum in Santa Cruz. It was an extremely entertaining speech about Sun's continuing efforts to loosen Microsoft's hold on the computing public. But some listeners around me were not impressed.
"Sun is as deep into control as Microsoft is," I recall one person saying. "They're just mad that it's Microsoft at the top and not them. But I think that if you asked most people who they'd rather have as a dictator, McNealy or Bill Gates, I think most people would prefer Gates."
Those words stuck with me as I listened to the August 31 press conference at which Sun announced that it was buying Star Division and making its StarOffice product for Linux and Windows freely available. The move, according to Sun, is a perfect fit with the company's strategy to move network computing forward.
It's been difficult to find people in the Linux community who, like me, are cynical about Sun's buying its way into the desktop applications market. Some, like PC Week's Peter Coffee, see Sun's move as yet another ringing endorsement of Linux. Others see it as a long-term way to get Linux onto more desktops.
In reality, neither of the above is the case at all. Sun's interest in Linux begins and ends with Linux's ability to stall Windows until Sun can get the public to buy into its vision of having us all go back to relying on someone else's server. (Remember the wonderful old days of the mainframe?) Once that ability is no longer useful to Sun, its Linux support -- limited as it is -- will drop like a stone.
Into the Wabi hole
As someone who lost money because of Sun's decision to kill Wabi for Linux in March -- just as demand for it was growing -- I'm extremely wary of Sun's motives. I don't believe Sun wants to help the Linux community at all, except to help fend off Windows while Solaris makes its move to eclipse both Windows and Linux.
Sun's vision appeared quite clear in the press conference:
- In the short term: give away StarOffice to build brand recognition and increase a comfortable (if not loyal) user base; stop official development, hoping that suckers (aka "volunteers") within the open source community will do any necessary bug fixes and extensions; offload support to Linuxcare so that Sun never even has to look at Linux StarOffice users. (They're not of strategic interest anyway until it's time to move them to the next phase.)
- In the medium term: drop StarOffice like a hot potato the second that StarPortal is ready; push all the StarOffice users they can to the new architecture of dumber clients and Sun servers; do whatever is possible to kill off use of StarOffice. (If Linux users complain, who cares?)
- In the long term: StarPortal is deployed only on Solaris servers by ISPs that deliver the apps (as well as file storage and most other things you presently do on your own computer); people's desktops will be super-dumb machines that make Windows, as well as Linux as we know it, useless.
Far fetched? Maybe, but that's how the world will unfold if Sun gets its way. While Linux may have a role as an embedded OS for some future versions of these network terminals, the scalability and flexibility we've come to appreciate from Linux -- or from open source software of any kind -- has no place in the future Sun has mapped out.
It's no coincidence that there are no plans to port StarPortal to Linux, just as Sun has never released any of its server-side tools -- such as Sun WorkShop -- for Linux. The Linux development tools that Sun does provide are only aimed at Linux-to-Solaris migration. And I've previously described the link between Sun's involvement in Netscape and Netscape's decreasing interest in Linux ports.
One of the best places to find signs that Sun's generosity is both lukewarm and temporary is in the StarOffice download itself. If you had any belief that StarOffice had been turned into free software, think again.
The LICENCE file in the StarOffice package calls it "confidential and copyrighted," and specifically states "you have no right to distribute the Software." In other words, you can't pass around what you download; everyone who wants StarOffice legally must register, and either download the 66MB file or purchase it on disk. In this respect, the free version of StarOffice that Sun is making available is more restricted than the free version that was bundled with many Linux distributions before the Sun purchase.
Given Sun's long term strategy, this makes sense; every StarOffice user needs to register so that Sun can do a hard sell on them when their thin-client stuff is ready. They also reserve the ability to kill StarOffice whenever they want -- just like they did with Wabi.
We've already seen that Sun's planning to revive its idea of a thin client with the Sun Ray 1. This is Sun's second attempt at driving the public towards a world in which your ISP stores your files and serves your applications, and your screen is just the modern day GUI equivalent of a VT100 dumb terminal. Sun's first attempt, the JavaStation, has been lovingly referred to as a doorstop. Obviously, Sun's not giving up on this model without a battle, and it's up to us to keep from becoming casualties.
Next week, we'll have a look at what's wrong with Sun's vision, its grotesque spin on open software, and some truly open alternatives to StarOffice.