Sun, IBM Should Quit Open-Source Posturing

By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2004-06-30

Sun, IBM Should Quit Open-Source Posturing

"Fight! Fight! Fight!" Remember that call from grade school, when two kids started fighting with each other over some stupid thing or the other?

I do, and Im reminded of it as I read about how Sun CEO Scott "Scotty" McNealy called out IBM CEO Sam "Sammy" Palmisano for not being open source enough and—I swear Im not making this up—for having "Java envy."

Oh please. Boys! Stop fighting with each other right now, or Ill take you to the principals office.

First, Scotty, shut up already with such comments as, "Stop writing open letters to the No. 1 donator of open technology in the world." Youre not, and no one who doesnt draw a Sun paycheck thinks that you are.

Open means open source, not just open standards, and Suns open-source record is checkered, to say the least.

Yes, its great that youre open-sourcing Looking Glass and Java Desktop components JDNC (JDesktop Network Components) and JDIC (JDesktop Integration Components).

Now, stop playing games and open-source something significant like, say, Java or Solaris. Yes, I know youre thinking about open-sourcing Java, and youre hinting all over the place that youll be open-sourcing Solaris real soon now. Enough is enough! Get off the stick and open-source Solaris anyway.

For more news from JavaOne, click here.

If you still doubt the validity of open source, and we know you do, look at the evidence of your own products. You abandon your Linux server appliance line, Cobalt, but you open-source it on the way out, and what happens? More people actually start using it again.

Do you get it? A dead product line comes back to life, and the only explanation is that its been open-sourced. Can a company thats seen years of declining business ignore this lesson? I think not.

And while were at it, Sun, stop with the "1984"-style Newspeak stuff. Red Hat is twice the open-source company you are or are ever likely to be. Proprietary does not equal Red Hat Enterprise Linux to anyone except your new best friend, Microsoft.

Next Page: IBM, for its part, is a bit too patent-happy.


-Happy IBM"> Hey, wipe that smirk off your face, Sammy!

Yes, IBM has done more for open source than Sun has by a long shot. Id argue that if it werent for IBMs market support, Linux would still be more popular in hobbyists basements than in corporate server rooms. And lets not forget that many of IBMs most recent development efforts, such as Eclipse, have become open source.

Still, as the Sun boys point out, IBM does have a lot of software patents, and it would be nice if it werent quite so patent-happy, especially when it comes to software.

Overly broad software patents—and some days I wonder if theres any other kind—often impose unforeseen costs not just on developers, but on vendors and customers as well. For example, theres the infamous Amazon patent on one-click buying. Now, Im no patent attorney, and Im not much of a software developer, but I fail to see why enabling a customer to buy a widget or a whatchamacallit with one click should be patentable.

Or take the case of patents such as those surrounding high-speed Wi-Fis use of OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing), which are only enforced after other companies take the technology and turn it into prosperous products.

Wi-LAN, the patents owner, gave permission to the IEEE to use its patents in the 802.11a and 802.11g standards, but now its suing Cisco over its use of those patents in products using the exact same standards. Win, lose or draw, the end result will be higher cost for Wi-Fi users.

And boy, does IBM have patents. For example, theres U.S. Patent No. 6,304,886 for software that automatically "generates customized Web site without the Web site creator writing any HTML or other programming code." Can you say Web design wizard?

Or take U.S. Patent No. 6,658,642, which covers how independent programmers might work together to produce a unified software product. Hmmm … that sounds a lot to me like the very definition of open source.

Is IBM using those patents to stifle innovation? No, it isnt—today. But it only takes one change in management, and IBM could become the kind of company that uses its software patents like a bludgeon.

So, kids, when you go back out there to play, keep in mind that real open source and standards seems to work well for everyone, and you could both stand some improvement. Now, go out there, have some clean business fun, and stop fussing with each other! Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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