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MySQL-chief-cum-Sun-database-head talks open source

On the heels of Sun's $1 billion acquisition of MySQL, company's former chief plays ups the benefits of open vs. closed software.

SAN FRANCISCO--When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was 16 years old, he downloaded his first copy of open-source database software MySQL, according to MySQL leader Marten Mickos.

Now, roughly seven years later, Zuckerberg's company is one of MySQL's biggest paying customers, Mickos said here Monday at SD Forum's Global Open Source Conference.

"Why? It was free of charge," Mickos said, as part of his argument about why open source is key to business, and referring to Zuckerberg's initial reason for the download. Of course, Facebook now pays for its database support and services like many of the Internet's largest consumer companies, including YouTube, Yahoo, Wikipedia, Netflix, and CNET, publisher of

"All of the new entrepreneurs, they're building Web 2.0 and open-source companies in this new model," Mickos said, during a talk called "Free, Open and Global."

Mickos was here to evangelize open-source software on the heels of his company's $1 billion acquisition by Sun Microsystems. Now the head of Sun's database group, Mickos exemplifies the success of commercial open source, having run the second largest vendor of open-source software in the world.

Apart from Mickos, the confab featured venture capitalists and executives from IBM, the law firm DLA Piper, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Dutch Ministry to talk about how open-source standards and software are rapidly spreading around the world. Everyone seemed to agree that open-source software is showing up more in universities, government, and business, as well as driving innovation on the Internet.

"We're in a transition from proprietary, closed methods for software to (software that helps you) interact with customers," John Occhipinti, a venture capitalist with the Woodside Fund, said during a panel at the confab. "Big companies are on an old treadmill, and it's hard to get off. Most will transition to open source."

Mickos said that years ago, software was delivered as a packaged good, or with licensing fees. Now the market is undergoing a shift from closed-source software to open source, turning software into a distributed business.

The best business model today is to give the software away and charge at the point of value, he said. "That's how you get into subscriptions or an online advertising model. Perpetual license fees don't make sense," Mickos said.

"Software in the '80s and '90s was it's open, modular, interoperable, and that's the way to win," Mickos said.

Then Mickos tried to explain what open source is and isn't. It isn't a mystery, religion, anti-commercial, or an example of socialism. It's also not a business model, he said. Rather, "it's a smarter way to produce and distribute goods," Mickos said.

Of course, companies must figure out how to make money from open source. Most successful companies in the field, like MySQL, charge customers for premium services, like customer support.

He said that open source is powerful because if a company has the right application, it can draw on the criticism and help of a passionate community. There are nearly a half a million people who now say that they're a developer, 100 times the number of people who were responsible for developing the current information infrastructure of the Internet, according to Mickos.

MySQL has about 67,000 people who download the software every day and volunteer to help improve it.

"This is why free software is so powerful and why Microsoft has such a big problem keeping up with Linux. The people in open source aren't smarter than those in closed source, there are just more of them."

Finally, he added, his open-source business allows for a global workforce in which 70 percent of the staff works from home, in 30 different countries.

"What's the best way of organizing a workforce? It's about not having offices and tapping into the best resources wherever they are."