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Sun warms to open source for Solaris

The company continues its tilt toward the open-source world, as executives vow to open up the proprietary operating system. They stop short, however, when it comes to details.

SHANGHAI, China--Sun Microsystems continues its tilt toward the open-source world.

The company's president and chief operating officer, Jonathan Schwartz, said here Wednesday that Sun plans to give its proprietary Solaris server operating system an open-source flavor, but he declined to give a timetable for the shift.

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"I don't want to say when that will happen," Schwartz said in a press conference in conjunction with the company's SunNetwork conference. "But make no mistake: We will open-source Solaris."

The declaration is another indication of the company's grudging acknowledgment of the rising popularity of open-source software such as Linux, which presents an opportunity for Sun to undercut rival software maker Microsoft but also poses a competitive threat to Sun itself.

On the opportunity side, Sun this week released a second edition of its Java Desktop System, its version of Linux for desktop computers, which reproduces some features of Microsoft Windows.

It was only four months ago, however, that Schwartz himself suggested that Solaris would remain within proprietary bounds. "We've been somewhat unfashionable of late by saying we're not going to throw away our operating system and run everything on Linux," he said at an analyst conference in February.

Solaris is not widely used, except on Sun's UltraSparc chip, but the company has been predicting recently that Solaris and its accompanying development tools will be increasingly of interest to developers writing software for x86 servers--that is, those running more mainstream processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

In Shanghai, Schwartz invoked the precedent set by Sun's popular Java programming language.

"Look, you only need to look at what we've done with Java to understand how Sun views the value of incorporating community feedback," he said. "Java could not exist if only Sun is supporting it. It exists because there are hundreds and thousands of partners. We need to now take the model with Java and bring it to Solaris."

Schwartz declined to say what form the licensing model for an open-source Solaris would take. He did, however, point to the way Sun has adjusted its pricing model for Solaris to a subscription one that is "significantly less expensive" than that of Microsoft and Linux software maker Red Hat.

Sun will be turning up its engagement level with partners in bringing open-source Solaris to its users, Schwartz said. The company will "continue to grow the community in both the open-source and closed-source world," he said.

A problem that Schwartz wants to avoid is having Solaris splintered into different distributions like Linux, which he said creates application incompatibilities. Going the way of Linux-type licensing, he suggested, creates open source but not open standards.

"There is a big difference between both (open source and open standards). There is one Linux company in the world today that's confusing the two concepts, and that is Red Hat. And it is very dangerous," Schwartz said.

"They are saying that because they are open source, they are open standards. But they are losing track of something that we've always been focused on, which is that open standards enable substitution, choice and competition. Customers want to use our application server, or they may want to use WebSphere, or BEA or a J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition)-compliant JBoss," he added.

On the subject of a probable licensing model for the open-source Solaris, John Loiacono, executive vice president of Sun's software group, said: "We have to consider what licensing model we use and what levels of free usage we want. Then we also need to consider if we want to (segment the licensing model to address) commercial, private and academic use."

"We are finalizing these things right now. You'll see that we'll be very aggressive and progressive in our approach."

Addressing the question of how Sun plans to make money with an open-source Solaris, Loiacono simply said Sun doesn't have to rely on only the operating system. "We have hardware, storage, services and support. What we are doing is taking that whole thing and selling that whole thing," he said.

In a keynote address earlier Wednesday, Schwartz showed off a future Sun desktop operating system called "Looking Glass," as he had at another event last September. Among the notable features were 3D pivoting windows, an extended desktop and translucent application windows.

Schwartz said the company has shifted its focus. Instead of adding more features to the operating system, Sun is focusing on making Looking Glass robust enough for launch soon, but he declined to give specifics about Looking Glass' availability.

Ong Boon Kiat of CNETAsia reported from Shanghai. CNET's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.