Open source shouldn't just be a marketing exercise

After a 19-hour flight in economy--why do airlines make their coach seats so darn narrow--I arrived last week in Sun Microsystems' Menlo Park campus in Silicon Valley, for the company's inaugural Asia-Pacific summit.Some 20-odd journalists and analysts from the region got to hear first-hand what Sun's top executives including CEO Jonathan Schwartz and CTO Greg Papadopoulos, had to say about the company's technology roadmap and growth strategy.

After a 19-hour flight in economy--why do airlines make their coach seats so darn narrow--I arrived last week in Sun Microsystems' Menlo Park campus in Silicon Valley, for the company's inaugural Asia-Pacific summit.

Some 20-odd journalists and analysts from the region got to hear first-hand what Sun's top executives including CEO Jonathan Schwartz and CTO Greg Papadopoulos, had to say about the company's technology roadmap and growth strategy.

Schwartz spoke at length about how "volume will drive value", an equation that he said is key to Sun's core strategy. In a nutshell, the formula involves, first, driving Internet penetration worldwide and the volume of activities churned from this adoption, including the demand for social network sites, mobile services and multimedia content. Sun will then offer up its slew of servers, storage, software, data center and microelectronics products and services, to build the infrastructure needed to support this increased user demand.

Simply put: "The more we get people to connect online and the more we can bring individuals online, whether it is simply to communicate with one another or do business, the larger the infrastructure opportunity is generated," Schwartz said.

A huge component of Sun's strategy to drive volume is its open source movement, primarily because this initiative will allow the company's products and technology to be freely available, and as pervasive as possible. It will help create Sun as a viable brand and give its products visibility in the new media era.

During the Q&A session at the summit, I asked if that makes open source simply a marketing and branding exercise, rather than a key part of Sun's technology roadmap--to which, Schwartz retorted: "What's the difference?"

In some ways, he is right. You can't be a successful technology company, or any company for that matter, without coupling your product development strategy with an effective marketing program. Schwartz elaborated on this point during our one-on-one interview.

The problem, however, arises when some companies choose to focus their attention on the marketing component and, in the case of open source, neglect to contribute their share of technology development back to the community.

Admittedly, Sun has done much more than some of its peers in giving back to the open source industry, having committed to making several of its key products--Java, Solaris and Niagara--open source.

But that isn't always the case amongst others that have pledged to champion the open source movement. Last I checked, IBM's AIX, Novell's NetWare and the HP-UX have yet to be made open source. And I should add though that Novell has given away source codes of some of its products, while IBM freed up access to some of its patents for open source use.

A few years back, open source was the new fad and emerging "cool" technology to be a part of, and several major tech vendors made it a point to be perceived as avid participants of this growing trend.

But it's not enough for these companies to simply label themselves ardent open source supporters, merely as a marketing exercise, without putting in any concerted effort to contribute to the growth of the community.

As Jesus Villasante, head of software technologies at the European Commission's information society and media directorate general, once said: "Companies are using the potential of communities as subcontractors--the open source community today [is a] subcontractor of American multinationals."

So why aren't companies that vehemently proclaim to be open source supporters being pushed to make their own proprietary products open? Go figure, perhaps it's time someone did.