Oracle + Sun: Good News or Bad News for Open Source?
Published 14:32, 20 April 09
The surprise announcement that Oracle is to buy Sun for $7.4 billion will provide fodder for news items, features, analyses, blog posts and tweets for many weeks to come as details begin to emerge and are pored over endlessly. But it's probably worth a very quick first attempt to delineate who are likely to be the winners and losers in this very interesting fusion.
I think one loser, at least in terms of perception, will be IBM. The long and painful discussions between Sun and IBM were becoming as tedious as those between Yahoo and Microsoft, and Oracle's nippy action makes it look as if IBM wasn't fast or smart enough to close the deal.
As well as perception, there's also the fact that it's bad news for IBM because putting Oracle and Sun together increases the clout of the former considerably in the corporate sector, and creates a much more powerful rival to Big Blue there.
That's actually quite good news for open source, though, because swallowing up Sun effectively turns a large chunk of the new, enlarged Oracle into an open source company.
If Sun's open source technologies aren't adopted by the enterprise, Oracle's main market, then the purchase will have been largely a waste of money. So through this move open source effectively gains an even bigger champion in business than it had in Sun.
The downside is that Oracle's feelings about open source – and hence its advocacy - are probably more ambiguous than Sun's. In particular, it seems to have very little truck with the more idealistic leanings of the free software side of things. Pragmatists might rejoice at that, but it does mean that Oracle will be aiming to use open source as a tool rather than see itself as an evangelist with a mission to convert.
That can be seen from the press release, where the “two key Sun software assets” that are named are Java and Solaris.
Java is relatively unproblematic, since Sun always managed it tightly, and Oracle will doubtless carry on in that vein. Thanks to Sun's decision to release it under the GNU GPL, people are pretty free to do with it as they wish. Oracle's backing should ensure that Java becomes even more important in enterprise settings – and that could be a big boost for open source in quite an unexpected way.
For a little while, I have detected a feeling that Java is a little passé, what with all the exciting new alternatives now available. With Oracle putting its weight behind the language, and able to push it in very different contexts from Sun, I think we will see something of a renaissance for Java. That's not only good news for Java itself, but also for all the open source projects that depend upon it – including Google's Android platform.
With more people programming in Java, I suspect that there will be more corporate uptake of the Android platform, whose programming environment suddenly begins to look more relevant to businesses – more so than that of the iPhone, perhaps.
Moreover, this development would fit nicely with the increasing number of Android developments in new contexts – netbooks, consumer devices etc. As a result of all this interest from across the computing spectrum, Android is going to become much hotter, and that will drive even faster innovation, development and uptake in this area. Bad news for the other Linux-based mobile platforms perhaps, and certainly bad news for people like Symbian and Microsoft.
The other “key software asset” explicitly mentioned is Solaris. We're also given a hint of why Oracle likes Solaris:
The Sun Solaris operating system is the leading platform for the Oracle database, Oracle’s largest business, and has been for a long time. With the acquisition of Sun, Oracle can optimize the Oracle database for some of the unique, high-end features of Solaris.
This is indeed a great match. The one card that Solaris could play against GNU/Linux was that it has always been designed as a high-end system.
To be sure, GNU/Linux has been catching up all the time, but Solaris probably still has an advantage here – one that I'm sure Oracle will press to the full. Oracle's database running on Solaris will surely become the company's preferred offering, and that has two very important, and rather negative implications for open source.
The first, obviously, is for GNU/Linux. It's noteworthy that Oracle feel compelled to address this directly in the press release:
Oracle is as committed as ever to Linux and other open platforms and will continue to support and enhance our strong industry partnerships.
And if you believe that, I have a bridge you might like to acquire. Oracle's Unbreakable Linux product has always been controversial, not least because people weren't sure whether Oracle really supported it, or just supported what customers said they wanted. Now that it has a viable alternative, I'm sure we'll see Unbreakable Linux downplayed as a solution.
And what is sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander: Oracle's acquisition of Sun means that it will also own MySQL – effectively, the GNU/Linux of databases. There is no way that Oracle will promote MySQL heavily; at best it will become the low-end alternative for customers who moan that the main Oracle database offering is too costly.
And so what I expect to see is a two-pronged attack: Oracle database running on Solaris for top end, and MySQL running on GNU/Linux at the bottom. Now, Clayton Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma teaches us that this is not a stable situation – the disruptive, low-cost entrant will always gain features allowing it increasingly to cannibalise the established leader's market share
I suspect that one of the things that made Sun so attractive was that buying it Oracle could attempt to deal with two open source threats at once – one direct, the other more indirect. Its aim will be to throttle the upstart pretender to the throne in order to protect the reigning monarch. That's going to be bad for both GNU/Linux and MySQL, but particularly the latter. I suspect that its development will begin to lose momentum – especially since Marten Mickos is no longer with Sun to fight its corner – and that interest in alternative open source databases will increase.
Forks of MySQL might be another interesting possibility.
Finally, a big but maybe rather surprising winner of the Oracle/Sun deal could be OpenOffice.org. Oracle has never really had any offering for the mainstream desktop, and an office suite fills the gap nicely.
Imagine what would happen to OpenOffice.org's market share if Oracle starts to offer its enterprise customers deals they can't refuse on the desktop? It could easily be an added sweetener – use our database and we'll give you a corresponding number of licences to the StarOffice (the commercial version of OpenOffice.org) with full Oracle support.
That would provide a huge boost to the ODF standard and OpenOffice.org as a consequence.
This, in its turn, would be really bad news for Microsoft at a time when it is already beginning to show signs of weakness in the operating system sector with the continued failure to come up with a popular, viable alternative to Windows XP.
Exactly which parts of open source will benefit from Oracle's move obviously depends on the details of how Oracle decides to absorb the company and to fit Sun's products alongside its own. But as well as downsides, there is plenty of scope for major benefits to flow from the move. One thing is for sure: things in the open source world just got even more interesting.
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