SAP wants an open Java process (pot, meet kettle)

SAP apparently doesn't understand the irony of a proprietary software company demanding that complements like Java be open.

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

Vishal Sikka, SAP's CTO SAP

It's a fundamental tenet of classical economics that vendors want complementary goods to be cheap and plentiful.

It's therefore not surprising that SAP Chief Technology Officer Vishal Sikka is calling for a more open Java Community Process (JCP).

What is surprising is that it is SAP, the bastion of proprietary software, that delivers this message.

Irony, thy name is SAP.

SAP, after all, is hardly the most open-source or open-process friendly company on the planet. Despite early involvement in Eclipse, some interaction with MySQL (MaxDB), and a new commitment to the Apache Software Foundation, SAP remains a firmly proprietary company.

Even Microsoft, which arguably has the most to lose from open source, has consistently and continually experimented with greater open-source involvement.

SAP? Not so much. In large part, SAP hasn't been forced to embrace open source because it hasn't been threatened by it. ERP (enterprise resource planning) is such a complex beast that it has remained largely impervious to open source (with the exception of open-source start-ups like Compiere and Openbravo, to which I'm an adviser).

A few years ago I was asked to speak at SAP's Palo Alto campus. I spent an hour talking about open source's commodity influence on the industry. During the question-and-answer period, one attendee said: "This is all fine, but open source has not touched our business. ERP is different."

Apparently, that thinking prevails, as Sikka's argument about a more open JCP process fails to apply the logic to SAP's own software. He wrote Monday in a blog, laced with italics and bolds:

The Java industry is currently going through important changes, and there are many discussions around the openness of Java and the Java Community Process (JCP). To date, the JCP is heavily dominated by Sun Microsystems which was not always to the benefit of all parties interested in Java. Java is the lifeblood of the IT industry, and IT is a fundamental underpinning of the way business is conducted in the 21st century....

To ensure the continued role of Java in driving economic growth, we believe it is essential to transition the stewardship of the language and platform into an authentically open body that is not dominated by an individual corporation. Java should be free of any encumbrances to permit fair competition between compatible implementations for the benefit of customers. By preserving the integrity of Java, the IT industry can ensure a vibrant developer community and continued innovation for enterprise software customers. This ensures the continued global economic success brought about through open innovation.

It's a good argument, but it sounds funny coming from an SAP executive. After all, Sikka starts his argument by asserting that SAP's software is indispensable to the world's IT systems: "SAP systems are at the core of large parts of global IT, and are powering more than 65 percent of the transactions that make up the world's Gross Domestic Product (GDP)."

Surely any system upon which 65 percent of the world's GDP depends should be open, right?

Apparently not. SAP NetWeaver and, well, everything the company ships remain firmly proprietary last time I checked. Complements to SAP's proprietary products should be open, however--or so the argument goes.

Sikka does suggest that "SAP software also needs to be open and adaptable in order to allow customers and partners to be nimble and benefit from the speed of innovation within the SAP ecosystem," but apparently he means that everything but SAP's software should be open and adaptable.

Complements are best when they're free and plentiful, after all.

Again, Sikka's message is not wrong. It's the messenger who has the problem.

Disclosure: I will be presenting at SAP in Walldorf, Germany, on Thursday on SAP's track record with open source and open standards. Please share your thoughts on how SAP is doing.