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Meet Sun's open-source ambassador

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- As Sun Microsystems Inc.'s unofficial ambassador to the open-source community, Marco Boerries has a tough job.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- As Sun Microsystems Inc.'s unofficial ambassador to the open-source community, Marco Boerries has a tough job.


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Like just about every official with a major computer or software power attempting to come to grips with the growing customer acceptance of Linux and other open-source software, Sun (Nasdaq: SUNW) is seen as a potential spoiler.

Even more than IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) or Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HWP), Sun's open-source motives have come into question in recent months. It has wrestled publicly with thorny issues, such as opening up its Java community process and releasing selected pieces of Sun's software into open source.

Attitudes changing
But Boerries -- the founder of the German office-suite vendor StarDivision who currently serves as vice president and general manager of Sun's Web top and application software -- said the tide is turning. He believes Sun is finally being seen as the open-source vendor that, at heart, it always has been.

"Things are changing, in terms of our perception by the open-source community," Boerries said in an interview Wednesday at the LinuxWorld trade show. "We have no plans today to switch from Solaris to Linux. We are allies ourselves between the Linux development community and the Solaris community."

Indeed, Sun was one of the headliners at Tuesday's launch of the Gnome Foundation at LinuxWorld. The newly minted Foundation is aiming to build an open-source desktop environment that it hopes will rival Microsoft Corp.'s (Nasdaq: MSFT) Windows/Office combination.

Boerries the broker
Sun's booth was one of the most crowded on the LinuxWorld show floor. And Sun sponsored a private dinner at the show on Tuesday night which was attended by some of the lead developers from Helix Code, Red Hat (Nasdaq: RHAT), Eazel and other open-source players.

'Solaris is Unix and Linux is Unix. We need to keep them one Unix. This is not so much about what is or isn't open-source. It's about making sure we have open systems and open standards.'
-- Marco Boerries


In many respects, Boerries is the perfect choice to broker Sun's relationship with the international open-source community. At 16, following a stint as a German exchange student at a high school in Palo Alto, Calif., Boerries began developing word-processing software. He founded StarDivision shortly thereafter. He sold StarDivision to Sun for an undisclosed amount in August 1999.

Boerries fits right into Sun CEO Scott McNealy's anti-Microsoft mold. He seems to detest the Redmond, Wash., software maker as much as his boss. While the StarOffice suite has four million users worldwide and runs on a variety of operating systems -- including Solaris, Linux and Windows -- according to Sun, the suite's raison d'etre is to compete with the dominant Microsoft Office desktop suite.

A month ago, Sun announced plans to open-source StarOffice and related programming interfaces and file formats via the Opensource.org initiative. The company will make good on that promise by Friday, Oct. 13, a date Boerries claimed to find lucky.

"We're driving office file formats and APIs (application programming interfaces) into commodities," Boerries said. "That's why we open-sourced StarOffice."

Sun: It's all Unix
Boerries isn't as much of an idealist as many in the open-source community, some of whom wax poetic on the virtues of the open-source business model vis-à-vis the propriety software development model. He acknowledged that, at the end of the day, it is Sun that signs his paycheck. And isn't Linux just another flavor of Unix? he wondered aloud.

"Solaris is Unix and Linux is Unix. We need to keep them one Unix," Boerries said.

Sun isn't interested in splitting hairs, he added. "This is not so much about what is or isn't open-source. It's about making sure we have open systems and open standards."

Such sentiments are sure to raise the hackles of Linux aficionados and open-source purists, many of whom have adamantly tried to distance themselves from the political infighting and fragmentation that have historically plagued their Unix counterparts. Open-source backers have been among the most vocal critics of Sun's decision to release Solaris and other pieces of software under quasi-open-source licenses.

Defending Sun
But Sun definitely has its defenders.

"The last four weeks have been very interesting," said Michael Meeks, a principal with Helix Code. "Sun has a lot of bright people. I'm very optimistic."



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Added Bernie Mills, vice president of marketing with CollabNet, "Sun is not doing this (working with the open source community) because it's a fad. The hardware vendors who want to make theirs a platform of choice can use software to that end. But, in the end, these companies need to thinking about their business in fundamental, new ways."

CollabNet has forged alliances with Sun, Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL) and others to advance the collaborative development processes that are at the core of the open-source model.

Deborah Gage, Sm@rt Partner, contributed to this report