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Sun, Open Source and Star Trek


One of classic Star Treks best episodes was “Mirror, Mirror” For those of you who have somehow managed not to see it, in this episode Kirk, McCoy, Uhuru and Scotty are caught by an ion storm in mid-beam-up and end up in an alternate universe Enterprise, crewed by evil versions of their comrades.

I dont know about you, but when I look at Sun and its recent open-source moves, I start seeing an open-source “Mirror, Mirror.”

For example, a few weeks ago, Sun announced that it was releasing patents to the open-source community.

Now, as someone who hates software patents, I like the idea of anyone—Novell, IBM, Sun, whoever—opening their software patents up to the community. But, questions began to spring up about exactly how open Sun was being with its 1,600 patents.

Dan Ravicher, the Public Patent Foundations executive director opened up this can of worms by writing in an open letter to Sun, “In Suns announcement, they make sweeping statements about how the open-source community will immediately gain access to 1,600 active Sun patents for operating systems, but the legal nitty-gritty behind the announcement shows that Sun has retained the right to aim its entire patent portfolio at GNU/Linux or any other free and open-source operating system, except, of course, for their soon-to-be-released version of Solaris.”

Bruce Perens, one of the founders of the Open Source Initiative, put it more bluntly on Slashdot: “They can sue Linux developers over those patents. They can sue their own Open Source partners.”

Then, earlier this week, Suns head of Solaris marketing, Tom Goguen, tried to clear up the situation by saying, “Clearly we have no intention of suing open-source developers.” But, that, “We havent put together a fancy pledge on our Web site” to that effect.

Well, if you trust Sun, that might be good enough for you. But, if theres one thing Ive found over the years, its that Sun is constantly changing its stance, and it has happened yet again.

On Tuesday, during the question-and-answer session at the keynote speech of Suns Network Computing meeting at the companys Santa Clara, Calif. campus, COO Jonathan Schwartz said that such opposition came from people who “believe that everything must be GPL. The open-source community is far larger than just the GPL community.”

Fair enough, but then Scott McNealy spelled out that, “Sun has an obligation to its shareholders to leverage and protect its intellectual property. We are granting [access to our intellectual property] to people who are responsible and who are signed-up licensees of the CDDL.”

Argh! There you go, folks. Sun just doesnt get it.

The whole point of open-source is that by sharing IP, everyone benefits, but you do have to really share it, and Sun doesnt get this.

Larry Rosen, a partner in the technology law firm Rosenlaw & Einschlag and author of “Open-Source Licensing: Software Freedom and Intellectual Property Law” has another worry about the CDDL.

“My biggest concern about the proliferation of reciprocal license such as the CDDL is that we end up not with one commons of free software but multiple islands of it that cant be interchanged for creating derivative works,” Rosen said. “We get some of the benefits of the open-source paradigm but—as the Apache foundation is so fond of reminding us—reciprocal licenses prevent free software from being available to absolutely everyone for modification and reuse.”


Now some people at Sun, like Suns chief technology evangelist, Simon Phipps, think that Im anti-Sun. In his blog entry of Jan. 26, Phipps wrote, “As usual Steven Vaughan-Nichols of eWEEK is the spokesman for the competition and the leader of the (many) journalistic naysayers who cant just bring themselves to admit Sun might have done a good thing.”

Actually, over the years, Ive liked Sun. I still like Solaris—I just dont think it will ever be open-source—but what I dont like is Suns constant game playing.

Phipps then went on, “Just to show how far over the edge SJVN and his usual suspects are, take a look at Groklaw, where Pamela Jones has written a long, thoughtful and balanced analysis of the news. It is the opposite of the trade press shallowness.”

I wonder if Phipps feels the same now that Jones has listened to the same comments that I have and what he thinks of her latest: “So, about that CDDL. Watch out. Thats what Id say. Use it only if you trust implicitly in Sun. And if you do, Id certainly like to know why. The community needs to watch this company like a hawk, in my view, after what I saw today. They are not yet full members of the Open Source community, to phrase it as positively as I can.”

You can say that again.

Listen, Simon, Scott, Jonathan, forget about calling what youre doing open-source. No one says you have to be open-source. Well, OK, so you need to do something about the fact that Linux is eating Solaris market share lunch, but I think youve already got that with your N1 grid model.

Selling it isnt going to be easy, because grid is a new idea, but, from that same speech, it sounds to me like youre finally getting the grid message across. Heck, maybe you can make it profitable at a buck an hour.

And, you can do that without simply calling what youre doing open-source, because, the bottom line is, its not. And, if you keep trying to have it both ways, Sun may end up like the latest version of Star Trek, Enterprise: cancelled.

A version of this story first appeared in eWEEK.

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