Sun's Bum Rap on Open-Source


By Jim Kerstetter Scott McNealy would like to assure the world that, whatever people may think of Sun Microsystems (SUNW), he and his company have nothing against open-source software. During a keynote speech on June 29 at Sun's JavaOne software conference in San Francisco, McNealy officially handed Sun's new Looking Glass desktop technology to the open-source community under the General Public License -- the same license that governs the Linux operating system.

For McNealy it was just the latest response to one of the most puzzling questions in the high-tech industry: How did Sun, a company built on the back of open-source software, gain a reputation as Enemy No. 2 to the open-source community, behind only Microsoft (MSFT)?

Of all the labels for the struggling Silicon Valley computer giant, it's probably the one that's unfair -- not to mention ironic. When Sun was founded in 1982, its original workstation computers ran on the BSD operating system, a variant of Unix developed at the University of California at Berkeley by Sun co-founder William Joy. "We've been doing community development for a long, long time," McNealy says. "Sun was the first company to base an entire product line" on open-source software.

OFFICE ALTERNATIVE. That history goes well beyond BSD. McNealy is quick to point out that Sun trails only the college kids from Berkeley in donating computer code to community programming. That includes the Network File System for making computers work together, which Sun offered for free more than 10 years ago, and Open Office, an alternative to Microsoft's Office suite. And though Sun officials are still vague about the details of their plans, Sun plans to offer parts of its Solaris operating system to the open-source community.

So why the bad rap? Namely, Linux. Sun now distributes two versions of Linux on its low-end servers and sells a Linux PC, but McNealy had long been reluctant to work with the open-source operating system. He had good reason. Linux competes directly with Solaris, and most analysts believe Linux -- not Microsoft's Windows operating system -- is the reason Sun has lost a third of its server market share since 2001.

Protecting the franchise, it seems, trumps placating the open-source crowd. Sun was also one of two major companies in the last year to acknowledge buying technology licenses from SCO Group (SCOX), a small Utah company that claims Linux contains intellectual property it owns. The other big company? Microsoft. Computer Associates (CA) also took a SCO license but says it did so only under a lawsuit settlement with SCO's major investment backer, Canopy Group.

"BENEVOLENT STEWARDSHIP." Sun's grip on the Java programming language -- coupled with some savvy lobbying from IBM (IBM) for Sun to hand control of it over to the Eclipse Foundation, an open-source group dedicated to Java development -- hasn't helped either. Through what's called the "community development process," Sun invites other people to work and develop Java, but Sun retains final say on any changes. It's a system McNealy calls "benevolent stewardship."

And it's hard to argue with the results. Java is one of two major development platforms for the computer industry. So don't count on Sun ceding control over Java to anyone. "[IBM] execs believe they were the stewards and they had invented it," says McNealy, adding, "I think they'd love to wrest control of stewardship away." It's safe to say McNealy isn't about to let that happen, no matter the bum rap. Kerstetter is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau


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