Sun dances with open source
- By John K. Waters
[PROGRAMMERS REPORT, OCTOBER 8, 2002] -- At a series of recent events, Sun Microsystems has been doing a dance with --
and around -- the open-source software community. Some of these dance steps may
lead to new development platforms for developers.
In the 1990s, as its proprietary Solaris operating system flourished, Sun
launched a variety of open-source and pseudo open-source software initiatives.
These included the Open Office application suite, the NetBeans IDE and Java
(which was made public through a Java Community Process that has, over time,
added more of the bells and whistles associated with true open-source
Sun has recently been forced to respond as Linux has threatened Solaris on
standalone and low-end servers. The company recently discussed Linux desktop
offerings, which could create a new market for developers' wares.
While Sun leaders promote the open-source software philosophy as an
alternative to Microsoft desktop dominance, they also continue to question open
source as a business proposition. Still, at least one Sun rep bearing the job
title of ''Open Source Diva'' touts it as a path for passionate developers.
Recent announcements from Sun about its open-source
activities have led to misunderstandings about the company's strategy in that
space, Danese Cooper told Programmers' Report
during last month's SunNetwork 2002 Conference, and it's a
situation she'd like to clear up.
''Sun has been involved in open source almost from our birth,'' Cooper said.
''The truth is, [in recent years] we have done more to support open source and
give it legs than just about anybody.''
Cooper, whose business card reads ''Open Source Diva,'' said Sun's involvement
in open source is good for developers because it gives them a marketplace. ''Open
source spends too much time trying to figure out who the bad guys are,'' she
said. ''Those of us who are trying to help these guys get serious about business
agree that it would be better to focus on the solutions than who to kick. So I
try not to go there.''
Sun has begun selling its Cobalt LX50 servers, which run on Linux, and it has
plans to sell Linux-based PCs. Those announcements, coupled with the firm's
earlier decision to begin charging for its Star Office productivity software --
based on the free Open Office application -- sent worrying signals to some.
''When the open-source community heard that we were charging for Star Office,
and they thought we were proprietizing Open Office, they were very upset with
us,'' Cooper said. ''I can't tell you how many times I've responded to e-mails and
typed out, 'Open Office code can never be taken away from you. The license says
so. We might stop hosting it, but it is mirrored in a 112 different places.'
When they realized that we were playing by the rules, they relaxed.''
Adding to the confusion, Sun's chief scientist, Bill Joy, who is a co-founder
of the company and the principal designer of the Berkeley version of Unix
(called BSD), has said that he has doubts about the moneymaking potential of
open source. ''The open-source business model hasn't worked very well,'' Joy said
at a recent Sun event. ''With open-source software, it's more the ego that sorts
At the recent LinuxWorld show, Sun CEO Scott McNealy said he saw the Linux
community as a group led by a ''benevolent, competent dictator'' -- in other
words, Linus Torvalds, who, along with other open sourcers, maintains the Linux
Standard Base (LSB) in the hope of keeping Linux from fragmenting like Unix
Linux is covered by the General Public License (GPL), which was written by
the Free Software Foundation. The GPL permits anyone to see and modify a
program's source code as long as changes are published for free if the software
is distributed. On the other hand, the license covering BSD permits a company to
turn open-source software into proprietary software.
Cooper sees her role at Sun -- a role she all but created for herself -- as
''open-source ambassador.'' Her job, she said, is helping open sourcers with the
''real exigencies'' of making money. ''They have a lot of help now,'' she said. ''Sun
is trying to show them how you can take an open-source foundation layer and
really do something with it.''
She also suggests that the evolution of a business model for free and open
software will give coders ''a little bit of self-determination.
''Except for the very top echelon of developers, mostly they show up every day
and do what they're told,'' she said. ''The great thing about open source is that
[developers] can be passionate and contribute to something they care about,
because coding is more like an art form that something you grind at.''
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John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached