Right hand, meet left hand

Every once in a while I look up from my own Microsoft-centric world (oh, I've tried a batch of other things, but I keep coming back to the operating system and tools that I know best) to look around at other parts of the development universe. Thanks to the wonder of weblogs, a few thoughts about Sun have crossed my mind this week, and I thought I'd pass them along.

Let's start with Jonathan Schwartz's weblog. Schwartz, of course, is Sun's president, and in an August 1 blog entry he looks skeptically at IBM's decision to base a lot of its work these days on Linux. "But ISV's can't build their business on a social movement - they have to pick a base software distribution and web service stack. And with most enterprises having picked Red Hat on IBM's recommendation, IBM now clumsily realizes it's invited the fox into the hen house. With Red Hat running on the majority of IBM's proprietary hardware, Red Hat can now direct those customers to HP and Dell. Even Sun." As far as I can dissect Schwartz's argument, it's that IBM made a big mistake by building features on top of open source, because that removes any possible hardware lockin, and lets customers move to less expensive hardware that they can buy from any old vendor.

But now turn to a July 30 blog entry from Adam Leventhal, a Sun kernel engineer who was just back from the open source convention OSCON. Leventhal writes about something called OpenSolaris, which is a coming open source version of Sun's own Solaris operating system. "Yes, we really are going to open source Solaris; no, we don't know the license yet; no, we don't know if it's going to be GPL compatible." Leventhal and other Sun engineers have been pretty consistently spreading this message, and they're claiming executive support for it as well.

So, follow this argument: if Solaris is open-sourced, then Sun is about to undermine its own hardware lockin. (Leventhal even says "My personal favorite piece of input about OpenSolaris was someone's claim that six months after Solaris goes open source there will be a port to PowerBook hardware. If that's true then everyone in the Solaris kernel group is going to have PowerBooks in 6 months plus a day.") That should let Sun's customers move to other vendors who charge less for hardware - which isn't going to do Sun's already-struggling business any good.

Of course, there are ways to resolve the apparent contradiction. We may just be seeing a boardroom struggle that's gone public, thanks to the increased corporate transparency offered by weblogs. Or perhaps Sun's lawyers have in mind some license that will let hobbyists play with Solaris on the platform of their choice without offering any actual choice to Sun's customers (though historically the open source community has not been especially pleased by similar shenanigans, as witness the widespread sneering at Microsoft's shared source licenses). But it certainly does sound like Sun needs to get all the key players into one room and then figure out what the message is for them all to spread. Otherwise, we outside hotheads will continue to engage in wild speculation.