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Sun's board may have 'a lot of explaining to do'

IBM may have pulled its offer, which doesn't bode well for Sun's open-source assets.

Sun Microsystems' board members are "going to have a lot of explaining to do if they turned down an offer of $9.40," Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi told The Wall Street Journal.

His assessment followed a New York Times report Sunday that IBM has withdrawn its $7 billion offer for Sun.

Just as Yahoo's rejection of Microsoft's offer left it looking aimless in front of its customers, so, too, could Sun's lack of an IBM wedding band leave it looking like damaged goods to its customer base--and to the open-source community.

It's this latter group about which I worry most. On one hand, the open-source world doesn't tend to care much for corporate positioning, preferring to focus on code.

On the other hand, given how cloudy Sun's relationship with developers has been over code control in Java and OpenOffice, for example, and given the almost-certain internal Sun turmoil that will exist in the wake of a failed IBM bid, I can't see Sun's relations with its various open-source communities improving in the near term. Sun's open-source communities are somewhat reliant on Sun, so the health of Sun, the company, has a direct impact on the health of Sun, the code.

OStatic's Kristin Shoemaker highlights this risk:

Whatever Sun's next move is...there's the reassuring idea that the open source projects it backs...are still open and generally available. While that's great news for developers and end-users alike, changing priorities at Sun (or losing Sun entirely), has the potential to unleash copious amounts of upheaval as these projects adjust to these changes and regain their footing. Very few scenarios that could play out mean certain disaster, but all have varying elements of real risk.

As Shoemaker suggests, a successful bid by IBM could also foster turmoil in Sun's open-source communities, but IBM's track record with open source, from Apache to Linux to Geronimo, is one of a relatively light hand. I personally think IBM would be very good for Sun's open-source communities.

Sun needs this deal to go through. It's apparently holding out for guarantees from IBM on both price and antitrust measures, all of which are understandable given the risk inherent in going to the altar and possibly getting jilted there.

But for its open-source projects and for its business generally, Sun needs this to go through. A few hundred million dollars won't make up for the damage it may do to its open-source assets if IBM pulls the bid permanently. Those assets, in the right hands, could prove to be a gold mine. In the wrong hands, they could prove to be nothing more than free downloads.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.