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Sun pragmatic about open-source software

Linux and open-source software have swept across much of the computing industry, but Sun Microsystems' top software executive is calling for a dose of realism about the movement.

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SAN FRANCISCO--Linux and open-source software have swept across much of the computing industry, but on Tuesday, Sun Microsystems' top software executive called for a dose of realism about the movement.

Open-source software--which demands that anyone may see, change or redistribute the source code that underlies a product--is good for attracting programmers and spurring new ideas, Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's executive vice president for software, said in a keynote speech at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here. But open-source software is not the answer to all problems, he said.

"The thing I worry about most with the open-source community is the sentiment that open source is somehow different. It isn't," Schwartz said. What matters to customers is quality, he said. It was the quality of Linux on Intel servers, not the open-source nature of the software, that attracted so many customers and eventually forced Sun to offer such a product, he said.

Sun has had a mixed record with the often vociferous open-source community. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based server maker shunned Linux for years in favor of its own version of Unix, Solaris, and was criticized for plans to show code for its Java software without granting outsiders full rights to change it. On the other hand, Sun has released several products as open-source software, including its OpenOffice competitor to the Microsoft Office package, its Grid Engine for high-performance computing and its programming tools.

"Judge us by our actions," Schwartz said. "I think we have one of the healthiest relationships with the open-source community...We've been a phenomenal contributor."

At the same time, Sun won't abandon Solaris in favor of Linux, just as it didn't abandon its own products 10 years ago when people urged the company to embrace Microsoft Windows. "We're in the same phase of cynicism where everybody says, 'Throw away Solaris and go with Linux.' It's not going to happen," Schwartz said. "We are not going to use Linux to displace our existing product set."

Linux is best suited for use on servers with Intel or AMD processors, Schwartz added, disparaging IBM's work to move the operating system and required higher-level software to its mainframes and other high-end systems.

"Lipstick on a mainframe is still a mainframe. You've got to spend a lot of money on (software) licenses," Schwartz said.

But Sun is considering using open-source strategies even with one of its most precious technologies, Java, Schwartz said in a meeting with reporters. Java lets software run on many different computers without having to be re-created for each one.

Sun Software Chief Technology Officer John Fowler has launched discussions of making Java an open-source project, a move Sun would make "to promote innovation and distribution," Schwartz said. "The main appeal open source has for the developer community is that folks love to noodle...What open source tends to do more than anything else is it tends to spark innovation."

It won't happen anytime soon, though, because of the risk that Microsoft would adopt the technology, then undermine it unchecked because of its immense distribution capability, he said. "When we out-ship Windows in desktop volume, we will look very seriously at open-sourcing Java on the desktop," he said.

Sun will attack Microsoft using Linux and OpenOffice--two crucial components of Sun's Mad Hatter desktop Linux plan.

The spear-point of the Mad Hatter attack will be price. Schwartz encouraged customers to get a price quote from Microsoft on Windows and Office. "Whatever it is, ours will be half that," Schwartz said. "The only way Microsoft can respond is by dropping its prices."

Sixty partners distribute OpenOffice or StarOffice, a near-twin of OpenOffice that Sun sells along with customer support. The software has been downloaded 40 million times, Schwartz said.

"You're going to see StarOffice showing up in every retailer around the world," Schwartz said. "The skepticism...about the focus of Linux on the desktop is beginning to lift."