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Did Open Source Kill Sun?

Some in the Java community are linking to Sun Chairman and Co-Founder Scott McNealy’s comments in the Oracle OpenWorld keynote, in which he wistfully looks back at the soon-to-be-gone Sun and boasts that they:

Kicked butt, had fun, didn’t cheat, loved our customers, changed computing forever

Sorry to bust the warm fuzzies, but we should append that history with a few more words:

and failed anyways

Sun lost money for most of this decade, as its stock fell more than 95%, reaching the point late last year where its market valuation equaled its cash and investments, meaning the market considered the company’s business as having no value whatsoever.

As engineers, we can romanticize Sun’s “good guy” behavior over fine craft beers all night, but at the end of the day, the company ceased to be viable, destroying a great deal of wealth in the process. Sometimes, it seemed like Sun wanted to be the non-profit FSF instead of a publicly-traded company. At least they got the “non-profit” part right.

And clearly understanding Sun’s failure matters because the kinds of things that Sun did are now going to be considered liabilities. Sun tried like crazy to win over the open source community. The community demanded that Sun support Linux, even though Sun would presumably favor its own flavor of Unix, Solaris. But they went along with it… giving companies a reason not to buy Sun hardware and instead lash together cheap Linux boxes, or buy heavy iron from Linux-loving Sun rival IBM. The community demanded that Java be open sourced and, after a series of fits and starts, it finally was, with the ultra-hippie GPL license no less. Ultimately, the community came to believe it had a blank check written against Sun’s engineering resources, as typified in the infamous “changing of the guard” episode of the JavaPosse and the somewhat testy reply.

But what did all these giveaways accomplish? The next time a community goads a company into open sourcing its crown jewels, the critical response may well be “yeah, that worked great for Sun.” In fact, that was pretty much Fake Steve’s take on Sun over the course of Sun’s decline, mocking the company’s giveaways, as it frittered into irrelevance. At the end of the day, how is FSJ not right on this one?

It’s ironic that Sun’s love of the open source community was largely unrequited. As late as 2007, Slashdot founder Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda was still expressing his eternal hatred of Java, and even in GPL form, Java has been slow to win acceptance from the F/OSS types. In an even more ironic twist, Slashdot’s tone has softened lately. For example, a recent article on Android game development quoted its source as saying “While iPhone apps are written in Objective C, the Android SDK uses relatively more programmer-friendly Java.” Why the sudden love for Java? Because it powers Android, the most plausible rival to the iPhone, now telephona non grata to the Slashdot community. In other words, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Too late for Sun though, and it’s not clear that a greater acceptance from a community that, by definition, doesn’t like to pay for stuff would even matter anyways. Perhaps the takeaway is that we all need a more realistic attitude about what individuals and companies need to do to continue their existence. Charity is swell, but it’s not necessarily a viable business model.

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