As chief open-source officer at Sun Microsystems, Simon Phipps has been a busy man of late, with Sun moving to open-source big pieces of its software portfolio—from its Solaris operating system to its enterprise Java software stack. Phipps sat down with eWEEK Senior Editor Darryl K. Taft in Boston in February to talk tools, software and business strategy.
How would you describe your job? What do you do?
Im Suns chief open-source officer. I am the catalyst for helping Sun open-source its software portfolio, from soup to nuts.
So I link together all the groups, give them or direct them to the advice they need to take their products open source, and devise the business models that will keep the developers paid. I promote best practice and unified thinking. And I advise Suns executives on open-source governance, licensing, community and business issues.
What is Suns tools strategy?
Our tools strategy involves working with the Java environment. The Java environment supports both the Java language and, increasingly, some other languages, such as Python and Groovy. And Im expecting to see that language support grow. We create 100 percent pure Java tools, which means that theyre designed to run in the Java environment on any platform. And were very sharply focused on making sure everything we do is able to work everywhere.
What are your thoughts on the commoditization of the IDE [integrated development environment]?
Well, I dont think the process is completely finished yet. There are still big markets for a variety of IDEs. I do think that looking at how IDEs work, theres still scope for more help to come into the IDE market. Neither the NetBeans environment nor the Eclipse environment is completely ideal for growing rich ecosystems.
The NetBeans environment is very focused on being 100 percent pure Java. But it needs to develop its market acceptance more strongly.
The Eclipse platform has got a very good ecosystem, but that ecosystem is based around a uniquely commercial foundation governance thats actually very hard to join, unless youre a startup. Neither of those has completely solved the commoditization of the IDE market.
So, what does Sun stand to gain from open-sourcing its software?
Well, there are a couple of different angles to come at that question from. Theres the very philosophical angle that you can take. I believe that society has gotten connected. Doing things as part of connected communities is going to become the main production mechanism—in the information society, in particular, and in other areas of society as well. Consequently, making sure that we are experts at working in that connected community is an important long-term goal for the company.
But how does that affect the bottom line? How does that help Sun make money?
Well, it helps because we have quite a big software portfolio. Answering that question means looking into each individual project. So how do we make money on Solaris? Well, we make money on Solaris by providing what weve always provided, which is excellent support of a high-performance software system.
Where do we make that money on Solaris? Well, we make that money on Solaris from the same sorts of customers who were always big on Solaris—data center customers, large-scale enterprise customers. Going open source for the Solaris market opens up new opportunities for growth. So weve seen a move into the OpenSolaris community recently, with people doing a port to PowerPC. Weve seen people who are taking a GNU operating system and replacing the Linux kernel with a Solaris kernel. These are both things Sun never would have done and are both things that—as they succeed in their individual marketplaces—create new ecosystems where Sun can offer services and support. So, by taking Solaris to OpenSolaris, we sustain our existing business, but we open new opportunities for expansion and growth in the ecosystem thats around OpenSolaris.
Yes, but I guess one thing that Im missing is: Arent all those things you mentioned free?
Well, I made this point in the panel just now. Everything is free to somebody in the world of open source. But there is always something people are willing to pay for. And the art of open source is working out what people are willing to pay for.
Just because something is open source and you could change it yourself doesnt mean you want to hire the developers to do that. Just because something is open source and you believe the risk of litigation against you for patent infringement is small, it doesnt mean that every business is going to want to absorb that risk itself. Maybe some companies will want to put a body between theirs and the enemy to take a bullet for them.
Not everybody wants all those things. So you can always find a sample case where it is actually free and there is no profit opportunity. But, equally, you can always find somewhere where there is a profit opportunity for every element of a software proposition.
Which would be services?
So, for some markets, you could classify it as services. Actually, what people classify as services isnt classic services in all cases. So I wouldnt actually say what were doing when we sell Solaris is selling services. What were actually doing is selling a bundle of propositions to customers. We have several different Solaris offerings. They all include indemnity. They all include support of various frequencies. And they all involve an update feature to get patches to you in a timely way. Now, is that a service business? Well, if you look at those value propositions, they are what people were actually paying for when they bought the glossy box before. But now theyre getting the bits free, and theyre paying for the same value that they were paying for before a little later in the process.
So, is that a service business? Well, I dont think that is a classic service business. It isnt a help desk in Bangalore, [India,] answering phone calls. Its actually funding ongoing development by monetizing things customers actually place a value on, rather than by bundling up the whole proposition into a box and assuming customers will know that the value they want is in it somewhere.