Unix pioneer an open-source killjoy?

Sun Chief Scientist Bill Joy says he's got doubts about open source, even as Sun takes a stab at selling its first general-purpose Linux servers.

Stephen Shankland
Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science Credentials I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
3 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems began selling its first general-purpose Linux servers this week, but Bill Joy, Sun's chief scientist and a pioneer in designing Unix, has voiced doubts about Linux's open-source underpinnings.

"The open-source business model hasn't worked very well," Joy said at an event here Tuesday to introduce a squad of new software executives at Sun.

A business link, he said, is important for ensuring customer support that doesn't rely on volunteer help and for letting market forces select between competing packages such as the KDE and Gnome software that give Linux a graphical user interface.

"With open-source software, it's more the ego that sorts it out," Joy said.

Joy, a Sun co-founder and the principal designer of the Berkeley version of Unix, called BSD, said he preferred BSD's license or, better, the Sun Community Source License (SCSL) to Linux's. Those licenses are more amenable to companies wanting to build businesses on the software, he said.

Joy, though, recognized the momentum behind the Linux operating system, which arose out of Unix. "Linux is moving faster than BSD at this point," Joy said. The Berkeley version, he said, "doesn't have the strength of community that Linux does."

Joy's remarks came just as Sun began selling its first general-purpose Linux servers, in the spirit of support that competitors IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell Computer began offering in 1999.

Not all agree that open-source software is a bad business model. SuSE, which sells a version of Linux, was profitable in the second quarter and expects to be so for all of 2002, said Holger Dyroff, general manager of SuSE's North American operations. The German company, with 380 employees, garnered revenue of about $27 million in 2000, $38 million in 2001, and $20.7 million in the first half of 2002. It expects $46 million for the entire fiscal 2002, Dyroff said.

Microsoft has been a vocal critic of some open-source software, criticizing the legal license that governs how people may use Linux's "source code," or underlying programming instructions.

Linux is covered by the General Public License (GPL), created by the Free Software Foundation, which lets anyone see and modify a program's source code as long as changes are published for free if the software is distributed. The license covering BSD, by contrast, permits a company to turn open-source software into proprietary software.

Joy said the SCSL, which he helped develop to cover Java and several other Sun software technologies, "fixed the flaws in the open-source licensing" by providing a better foundation for profiting off the software. The SCSL permits others to see and modify source code, but gives Sun the authority to accept or reject those changes. Sun also has the authority to charge royalties to companies shipping products using the software.

The SCSL proved unpopular with many in the open-source community who preferred the freedoms provided by the GPL. "I got hazed out of the open-source community because of this," Joy said.

Being able to build a business around a software package also is important when considering the job of supporting customers indefinitely, Joy said. A network of volunteers isn't sufficient.

"People ultimately get tired of answering support calls because it isn't that fun," he said.