What if Sun fails with open source?

Sun's bet on open source sounds great, but is it the right thing for the company?

The more I read about Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz betting the company's future open source , the more I grow concerned that if it fails, Sun will be the harbinger of sorrow for the rest of the open source world.

Sun is arguably the most important open source vendor right now as Schwartz has bet the company on software instead of its traditional hardware revenue. (I'm not discounting Red Hat's place, just that RH has been on the open source path since the beginning.)

Sun's strategy is audacious and reshapes the way that everything is done, but it's not clear that the strategy is correct or that Sun's existing corporate structure can execute on this enormous change. Staff reductions and other cost-cutting measures have little if anything to do with the switch to open source. Those measures would need to be taken regardless as the company is simply too bloated and expensive to run even if it generates a decent amount of cash.

Sun's approach--at least the way I'm reading it from Jonathan Schwartz's statements, is about making the software totally free and trying to sell support and hardware. This clearly diminishes the value of the products and doesn't offer a mechanism that encourages people to pay for software. It also puts an unnecessary burden on the notion of open source--such that if Sun is wrong, everyone else will look wrong too. But, Sun's approach is quite different from most (all?) of the open source start-ups and also different from Red Hat, the obvious leader.

The most successful open source companies have figured out ways to encourage people to pay for software. This usually includes a commercial license that removes the open source license restrictions. Typically, we see the base "open core" product plus some type of value added feature or service set that can't be obtained for the community version. The idea of simply selling support fell by the wayside for most companies at least one year ago.

If we take away Java and Solaris, Sun's only revenue-meaningful open source product is MySQL, which is also the only ubiquitous product in the Sun portfolio. Beyond MySQL, it's hard to find a category killer or even a highly adopted open source component that they generate revenue from.

If Sun is going to be a software company then it needs people to pay them for software. Period.

Note: Let me clearly state my biases:
- I'm not looking to get flamed here. I think this is a legitimate concern. - I admire and support Sun
- Java is my language of choice
- I have several friends at MySQL
- A company I founded theoretically competes with Sun in the SOA and integration areas

About the author

Dave Rosenberg has more than 15 years of technology and marketing experience that spans from Bell Labs to startup IPOs to open-source and cloud software companies. He is CEO and founder of Nodeable, co-founder of MuleSoft, and managing director for Hardy Way. He is an adviser to DataStax, IT Database, and Puppet Labs.

 

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