Sun\'s railways and locomotives

By   |  July 29, 2005

Gratis, open source, and open standards. Three related yet distinct software concepts. According to Jonathan Schwartz, COO Sun Microsystems, Sun will be investing in all three concepts for its product line, although figuring out why, what and wherefore at this point is as difficult as figuring out the software giant\’s stand on Linux.

According to a report on InfoWorld, Schwartz told the AlwaysOn conference: “We\’ve been trying to faithfully explore how to deliver our products and technologies for free.” He\’s certainly been exploring the concept of free software on his blog lately, saying in his most recent entry: “Free is a compelling price to drive adoption.”

Last month he noted: “Free software has no pirates. As I\’ve said forever, there\’s value in volume, even if you\’re not paid for it.”

So if Schwartz has anything to do with it, it looks like more – and perhaps eventually all – of Sun\’s software stack is going to be free (as in gratis). The value for Sun, as much as we can make out, will be selling hardware and support for its rather broad software offering.

Now on to open source. Sun has open sourced bits of Solaris under the OpenSolaris banner, most notably the kernel, under its home-grown Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL). OpenOffice has been a long-running and successful open source project, and hardly a month goes by without Sun launching another open source project.

Response has been varied, as has Sun\’s message about open source. Eric Raymond criticised Schwartz late last year when Schwartz claimed that Sun\’s Java community process (JCP) was closer to the ideals of open source than Raymond\’s own bazaar model, outlined in his definitive work, The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

“Sun can vapor on about voting and committees all it wants, but at the end of the day JCP is still a single point of control, the Java reference implementation and class libraries are under a proprietary license, and nobody can legally fork them. As long as that continues to be the case, Java will be firmly stuck in cathedral-land and any claim otherwise will be disingenuous crap,” wrote Raymond in November 2004.

But Raymond also supported Sun\’s OpenSolaris project, saying in the same letter: “Sun has broadcast its intention to open source Solaris, and I take Sun at its word on this. According to report, they\’re planning throwing Solaris open for all the right reasons, and I applaud them for it.”

Schwartz himself has argued loudly that open source doesn\’t matter compared to open standards. And here Sun has done a lot of good, even if most of the open standards it happens to support are its own (such as the OpenOffice document standards). “In the latter part of the 19th century, the private sector spent an immense amount of money and energy lobbying to standardise railway gauges. Did they really care? Yes. Once the standards were set, these companies saw a massive increase in opportunity to sell – not rails – but locomotives and rail cars,” says Schwartz.

\”We\’ve invested big amounts of energy and creativity to evolve and promote internet standards. Like TCP/IP, NFS, Java, even Project Liberty. Why? Because we\’re pathologically attached to standards? No, because when rail gauges were finally standardised new traffic flourished, resulting in extraordinarily successful locomotive suppliers.”

Although Sun Microsystems South Africa wasn\’t able to respond to our queries at time of going to press, we think we are starting to understand Sun\’s strategy – as much as its strategy can ever be understood by anyone apart from Schwartz and Scott McNealy.

It wants to turn its software offerings into a commodity. The commoditisation of computing will happen with or without Sun, so it might be more accurate to say that when software is a commodity, Sun wants to still be in the game. This is an important consideration – we\’ve already seen massive companies like Compaq disappear because they didn\’t know how to deal with a commoditised market.

The route Sun is taking is towards services. This isn\’t new either – we\’ve seen IBM do it successfully, and HP do it a little less successfully. Judging from anonymous nattering from the CIO community, Sun already charges a pretty penny for its services – some would say too much.

And then there\’s the Sun hardware stack. Since it\’s not offering services for its open source offerings, it seems clear that Sun still needs to make money off of its hardware to warrant that line of business. Yet hardware typically is the first to fall to commoditisation, not software. It comes down to whether Sun\’s hardware is the railway or the locomotive. Traditional thinking is that the software is the locomotive, hardware is the railway.

Once again Sun is going against the grain of traditional thinking. Whether this pays off for the company – as it often has in the past – remains to be seen. It makes Sun a very interesting company to watch, even if, at times, it borders on the unfathomable.


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