Sun vs. IBM

April 5th, 2009 | by | freesoftware, misc

Apr
05

If we’re to believe what we’re told in the press, sometime tomorrow – or perhaps later in the week – IBM and Sun will announce some kind of merger. I’m not sure anyone is under any illusion that this would effectively mean the end of Sun in time, being absorbed into IBM, although there is a lot of speculation over what would happen to various projects. Some, like NetBeans, seem pretty certainly done for, and the amount of life left in the SPARC architecture post-merger seems limited.

It doesn’t seem to me that MySQL will be affected much. IBM may or may not continue interest in it – I suggest they would – but Sun appear to have made such a complete balls-up of that acquisition that it doesn’t seem like it would matter any more. Sun’s argument was that they would make MySQL enterprise-ready – but then they released 5.0, which scared the horses and that $1 billion value looks to be rapidly eroding. Similarly, OpenSolaris would probably continue in some half-hearted effort, but again there appears to be a touch of “Well, why bother?” about it.

No-one much seems to have talked about OpenOffice.org. The community side of OOo, in terms of code, is really pretty limited and most interesting stuff happens in Go-OO. Sun are basically OOo, and the ODF TC at OASIS is heavily Sun/IBM. Presumably a merger would weaken their current combined grip on ODF by some small amount, but what of OOo? IBM are currently off in the weeds with Lotus Symphony, which has an outstanding user interface (compared to OOo anyway) but is based on some relatively ancient version of OOo. It would be nice to think that some grand merger of OOo and Symphony would happen, but any such scheme would likely completely alienate what OOo developer community there is because it would take time and be an extremely exclusive process.

I’ve always thought Sun had significant problems with their attitude to free software / open source. They talk about it a lot, it seems like their heart is in the right place, but fundamentally they don’t appear to get it. The difference between “controlling what we do” and “controlling what other people do” appears to be lost on them, and when they giveth with one hand opening up previously proprietary code-bases, they take away with another with licensing restrictions or limitations on contributions. However, IBM are an entirely different beast: they fundamentally do get it. Sadly, though, they get it and decide not to participate: hence Lotus Symphony, hence AIX, hence WebSphere, hence DB2, etc. etc. They contribute widely, but selectively and judiciously. Their participation in stuff like ODF is as much tactical anti-Microsoft activity as anything else.

Based on that approach to free software: very smart, very thoughtful application of development resource to projects which directly benefit IBM reminds me a lot of Microsoft. Fundamentally, their approach is identical – we’ll put effort into a few things where it suits us and we’re not going to be competed with, but everything else we’ll do proprietary thank you. Even where the pain of that proprietary cost is high – e.g., Symphony – they have the resource and the ability to do it.

It will be interesting to see what happens post-IBM. The job cuts are surely going to be the start, rather than the end, and some significant projects will stop – possibly abruptly. Things that will continue will quickly become IBM-branded. In many ways, it will be entirely illustrative of where Sun has gone wrong: IBM will not be putting effort into things which don’t generate return. They’re not going to be wowed by buzzwords about “cloud computing”. IBM are sharp, and the culture clash will be huge.

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  1. [...] probably as I was posting my little blog piece yesterday on IBM taking over Sun, it seems that the IBM and Sun deal was falling apart – seemingly a quabble over the pricing, but I [...]

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