It's official: The future of Sun/MySQL is open...and closed

Sun has finally confirmed what many suspected: The future of software at Sun is a mix of open source and proprietary software.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

The Sun faithful who attended the CommunityOne Conference this morning may not have noticed, but Sun and its MySQL executives were very clear about Sun's open-source strategy going forward, despite news reports that seem to have missed the nuances:

The core will always be 100 percent open source. The periphery...will not. Or might not. It depends.

In response to my first question of the CommunityOne panel Marten Mickos, Senior Vice President of Sun's Database Group, declared, "I just want to say that the core of MySQL will always be 100 percent free and open source." The crowd loved it. Ian Murdock said roughly the same thing: The core will be open....

The periphery? Marten indicated that this would be subject to a corporate calculus designed to determine how much peripheral, closed extensions the company can make to encourage purchases without alienating its community.

Sun's future (and according to some, all of our futures) is hybrid. Is this a bad thing?

It's certainly not a bad strategy. Basically, Sun wants to ensure that the core of products like OpenSolaris, MySQL, Java, etc. remain open and hence prone to widespread adoption. At the same time, the company also wants to ensure that it makes a fair return on its investments in software development, and doesn't feel that open source, in and of itself, will do this.

Fair enough, if a bit odd given that Sun has decades of experience in effectively giving away software to sell its hardware (and associated services). It's not clear that Sun needs to make a few hundred million on MySQL-related software sales in order to justify the acquisition, but it doesn't hurt, either.

I've long thought that open source was the market's way of correcting the excesses of proprietary software: Write once, mint monopoly profits everywhere to the customer's detriment. But Marten said something during today's panel that has me thinking that perhaps it's not quite that simple.

In essence, the idea was that after sowing seeds with open source for years it was time to reap, and to reap you need a proprietary hook that compels a purchase. Yes, Marten acknowledged, releasing proprietary code locks out community and places more of the development and distribution burden on the vendor, but it's a tradeoff calculated to yield more in sales than the company gives up in community benefit.

It's a balancing act, one that will require constant care to help Sun/MySQL err on the side of community and adoption, but squeeze enough growth and profit from the software to make the experiment worthwhile.

Marten, Ian Murdock, and other Sun executives at last seemed at peace with the decision to keep the core open and (selectively) close off peripheral software. There were no apologies, which made the chosen course of action seem much more legitimate. No more waffling. It's a clear business strategy, one that takes the community into account (core is 100 percent free forever), as well as the customer (pay for additional value at the edge).

It will be intriguing to see how it plays out for Sun and MySQL. It leaves Red Hat as the solo "pureplay" open-source vendor, though Sun is clearly much closer to Red Hat in its software ideology than it is to, say, Oracle or Microsoft. For that, it deserves credit. Whether it also deserves profit remains to be seen.