Sun proves the open market with MySQL

Sun might be buying a database company, but it's getting much more than code

Sun's acquisition of MySQL is easier to define in negatives than positives. It is not a company filling a hole in its technology portfolio: Sun already has more than one database. It is not a company taking control of key intellectual property: MySQL's products are open under the GPL, and Sun didn't have to shell out $1bn for them. It is not a takeover that anyone, including the hyper-critical iconoclasts of the open-source movement, has found fault with.

But $1bn buys you some positives, too — in this case, 11 million users at roughly $100 a head. These are what Sun wants, and for reasons which illustrate the changing economics of the software industry beyond the simple fact that there's billions in open source.

As more and more aspects of software become commoditised, money comes not from selling packages at more than the cost of production, but from guaranteeing that they will do their job, whether through support contracts, service level agreements or other ongoing deals. This is very efficient, as users are encouraged to find out whether software is providing enough value to make it worthwhile buying such guarantees, and if so at what level.

It is much easier with open software to leave and go elsewhere: for that reason, relationships between open-source suppliers and their customers are worth more than those in the proprietary sphere. As a supplier, you have to work harder — and your products and services will therefore be better.

With care, and with their recently demonstrated ability to not mess things up, Sun can parlay the trust of MySQL's userbase into trust in the company as a whole.

Sun is beginning to look like an open Microsoft. That's not because of the software it provides — although it is increasingly capable of matching Microsoft's portfolio — but because its growing number of users across many industries gives it a solid base for future developments. Those 11 million new Sun users don't have to stay: that it looks as if they will do so through choice, is the best news of the deal.