Oracle has long held a unique position in California’s Silicon Valley. It is to some the most reviled company in the valley. The lawsuit against Google for its use of Java technology in its Android smartphone software is just the latest example of Oracle’s determination to crush any company it believes is intruding on its turf.
It has left behind in its wake the remains of ruined companies, legal battles fought, and sometimes won. It is, in a word, corporate warfare at its worst.
While Oracle’s love of domination hasn’t made the news so much lately, there is certainly a long history of the company’s activities in this area. James Gosling, the creator of the Java programming language, pointed out in his blog that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is frequently referred to as, “Larry, the Prince of Darkness” or “LPOD.” Gosling also notes in his blog that the CEO’s approach to industry competition is best described by a saying attributed to Genghis Kahn that is a favorite of Ellison’s: “It’s not enough that we win; all others must lose.”
Ellison has had a long history of suing other companies, hostile takeovers and harsh treatment of employees. Over the years he’s had a long line of respected senior executives quit because they simply can’t take his aggressive style and hostile culture.
While I’ve only met Ellison a few times, I can see their point. And while his arrogance and aggressiveness might be bad enough, he takes it with him into his office and into Oracle’s business practices. For this reason, he sees open source as a real threat. You can assume that efforts such as MySQL will vanish when Oracle has a chance to pay attention to them. You can also assume that Open Solaris will become a thing of the past. To the executives of Oracle, all of these efforts look like lost revenue, and lost revenue is something to be avoided at all costs.
Oracle has already said that it considers Java to be the single most important asset it got when it acquired Sun at the beginning of the year. There’s little doubt that Oracle will try to find a way to eat slowly away at Java’s open-source status until the company can effectively demand license fees from anything developed in Java, despite the GPL that’s in place.
So, what does this mean to Google and its Android operating system? It’s true that creating applications for Android requires the Java Development Kit. In fact, you have to download and install the JDK before you can even install the Android Development Kit. So the applications on Android devices are indeed written in Java. But isn’t Java supposed to be an open-source environment? Wasn’t Android also supposed to provide the open-source vitality to the mobile environment?
The answer to both questions is yes. But there are caveats. There are some circumstances in which you need to get a commercial license to use Java, and if you follow the requirements of the Java community strictly, you’re supposed to share your applications. Google didn’t require this, knowing that to get robust development on Android devices, it needed to allow developers to protect their applications.
While the details are unclear at this point, it appears that Google didn’t use the version of Java intended for mobile devices but instead recompiled the Java virtual machine to run on the Android platform. Oracle is claiming, among other things, that this means that Google has to pay Oracle licensing fees.
Google, of course, says that Oracle’s suit is baseless and is proceeding to crank out Android in vast numbers. Oracle is asking for an injunction to stop all of this. So does this mean that all of those millions of Android devices out there will simply stop working? It’s unlikely.
Even Ellison doesn’t have the ability to make the courts order that Android devices be turned off and not used by anyone, anywhere in the world. If he tried, it’s unlikely that the courts would agree. Those millions of owners of Android devices bought their phones in good faith, and courts don’t usually take a step that could cost millions of people hundreds of dollars each. It’s unlikely that the courts will make the carriers stop servicing the devices for the same reason.
So what will happen? First, expect a protracted legal battle. Oracle is used to pillaging companies much smaller than itself. This is the first time it’s tried to take on Google. Google, for its part, is a highly respected company with several cubic miles of cash at its disposal. Despite the flack it’s taken for its joint Net Neutrality statement with Verizon, the company retains its Good-Guy image.
Complicating things is the fact that Sun never attempted to make Google stop using Java, despite the fact that the company has known about it for several years. It’s hard to press a patent infringement case when you’ve known about the situation, but have done nothing to prevent it. While this doesn’t overcome patent law, it makes it harder to press your case later.
The probable outcome is that the two companies will eventually settle, probably with an agreement to do a patent license swap. But it’ll be years of litigation and millions of dollars before Oracle finally realizes that it’s not going to be able to overcome Google by sheer size or quantity of lawyers, and accept the inevitable.
This will be one case in which Oracle won’t be able to make Google lose. But in the process, both companies will spend their time distracted from developing new products and creating innovations that they both need. It other words, it’ll be a lose-lose situation for all concerned.