Sun dances with open source

[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 software).

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 it out.''

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 did.

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.''

Links:
''Free SunOne version due on Linux, AIX and other OSes'' at http://www.adtmag.com/article.asp?id=6457

For other Programmer Report articles, please go to http://www.adtmag.com/article.asp?id=6265

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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