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EU's MySQL inquiry may backfire for open source

The European Commission is trying to protect competition by blocking Oracle's purchase of MySQL, but the consequence may be to dampen investment in open-source communities.

It takes time, leadership, and a fair amount of luck to successfully build an open-source community. It also takes money. Lots of it, if IBM's $1 billion commitment to Linux is any indication.

Unfortunately, the return on such open-source community investments may be permanently scuppered by the European Commission's misguided defense of MySQL from Oracle's intended acquisition. If the EC is going to punish successful open-source endeavors like MySQL, will investors still clamor to finance the rise of open source?

In many ways, MySQL is the quintessential commercial open-source success story. On the financial side, MySQL managed to build a vibrant business, doing north of $90 million at the time of its acquisition by Sun Microsystems in February 2008.

Equally compelling, however, is the exceptional user and developer community that formed around the open-source database project, registering tens of millions of downloads and a massive developer community.

This community augmented MySQL's financial fortunes, of course, but it also protected MySQL database users from the whims of the company, as former MySQL CEO Marten Mickos wrote to European Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes:

Even if Oracle for whatever reason would have malicious or ignorant intent regarding MySQL (not that I think so), the positive and massive influence MySQL has on the DBMS market cannot be controlled by a single entity - not even by the owner of the MySQL assets. The users of MySQL exert a more powerful influence in the market than the owner does.

Unfortunately, the EC seems intent on punishing MySQL--both community and company--for its success. Already the MySQL database project has started to fracture into competing forks, while business rivals like EnterpriseDB and IBM collect confused customers.

More worryingly, the EC's actions may end up diminishing potential returns to investors in other open-source projects, particularly those that take the added time and cost to build global communities.

Technology mergers and acquisitions activity is at a 20-month high. Open-source companies, however, may miss out on this resurgence, particularly those, like Acquia and EnterpriseDB, that build on successful open-source communities (Drupal and Postgres, respectively).

Indeed, based on the EC's actions, perhaps the worst thing these companies could do is foster successful open-source communities. Maybe they should just take the cash and run?

Consider: the EC didn't challenge Yahoo's acquisition of Zimbra, VMware's acquisition of SpringSource, Citrix's acquisition of XenSource, etc. What do they have in common? Rising revenue but, except in the case of SpringSource, much more limited communities than MySQL. (Even the Spring community pales in comparison to MySQL, impressive though it is.)

Granted, the major difference with Oracle/MySQL is that the two are ostensibly competitors, as CNET points out. In the letter referenced above, however, Mickos dismisses such competition. The reality is that MySQL and Oracle compete in two different database markets.

Regardless, as well as MySQL was doing, $90-plus million is spare change in the global database market. The EC, in other words, isn't trying to protect MySQL's business. It's trying to protect MySQL's community.

Such mollycoddling of an open-source community is destructive to all future investments in similar endeavors. Why should commercial entities bother fostering community--the very community that makes them less susceptible to hostile takeover and anticompetitive forces--if doing so simply ends up ruining financial returns?

The EC means well, but it is not doing the right thing for MySQL, its community, or other open-source commercial efforts. Quite the opposite. Just as the commercial open-source community has been pondering a move back to community-controlled open source, the EC threatens to hobble the shift.

The EC may well end up with less competition, not more, by blocking Oracle's proposed acquisition of Sun and its crown jewel, MySQL.