In his two years at the top of Sun Microsystems, Jonathan Schwartz has
embraced a number of ambitious changes. While one need not look too far to
find complaints about how Sun works with the free software community, there
can be no doubt that Mr. Schwartz has made the company far more open than
it was in the past. Free software is an important part of Sun's overall
strategy; this can be seen in the company's claims to have contributed more
code to the community than any other source.
Unfortunately, Mr. Schwartz's time at Sun has been accompanied by a 50%
decline in Sun's stock price. Whether he could possibly have done any
better given the state of the company when he took over and state of the
economy now is something one could debate, but we'll not do that
here. More interesting, from the community's point of view, is the rumors
that he could soon be looking for a new job.
It has often been said that if corporations were people, they would have
the personality of a sociopathic teenager. Certainly companies can exhibit
no end of the sort of moody, capricious, and even self-destructive behavior
sometimes seen in adolescents - then they come back and ask for more money.
An abrupt change at Sun could well bring in
a CEO determined to show that his predecessor's policies were fundamentally
wrong and were primarily responsible for Sun's problems. And that could
bring some interesting changes.
Imagine a Sun which decided that it could no longer afford to share its
Valuable Intellectual Property with the world. Perhaps Solaris,
OpenOffice, Java, etc. would be relicensed under the new, Sun Proprietary
Overtly Indecent License (SPOIL), with no more free releases. Hungry
lawyers could start prowling for cases where Solaris code has been mixed
into projects with incompatible licenses. StarOffice might go OOXML-only.
MySQL could shift to a new, undocumented on-disk format with users' data
subject to Sun-controlled DRM on every table. The new Java license would
forbid the publication of not just benchmark results, but also of criticism
of features of the language.
Clearly, some of these scenarios are rather far afield - though they are
fun to make up. But, if we have
learned anything from the SCO story, it must be that a company which
presents itself as a solid part of the community can, in short order, turn
around and go against us. Even if Sun does not degenerate to the point of
starting legal attacks against free software, it could certainly put an end
to the many contributions that it is making now.
Whenever one deals in company-owned free software, one should consider what
happens if that company goes away. Projects with distributed copyright
ownership are mostly immune to this kind of problem; there is no single
company which could create huge problems for the Linux kernel by
withdrawing its participation, for example. (Along these lines, it's worth
noting that Evolution recently stopped
requiring copyright assignments from its developers). But, in
situations where a single company owns the copyrights and dominates
development, a change of heart could make a real difference to downstream
users. It all depends on what sort of community has developed around the
If future versions of Solaris were to be proprietary-only, the current
releases would still be out there. But the Solaris development community
outside of Sun is tiny, so chances are good that such a move would kill
OpenSolaris as a free software project - to the extent that it is one now.
Anybody wishing to continue to use Solaris would probably have to move to
the proprietary version. OpenOffice.org would likely survive, though the
external development community - never encouraged that much by Sun - would
have to organize itself and, perhaps, choose a new name. Java is entirely
subject to Sun's policies regarding conformance tests and such; it could
easily revert to its status from a few years ago. And so on. The point is
that a change of heart at Sun could easily make us appreciate the company's
relatively friendly attitude now, and could create difficulties for
distributors and users of Sun-sponsored projects.
There are plenty of other single-owner projects out there, of course. Many
of them are entirely dependent on the continued good will (and viability)
of their sponsoring companies. Others are less so. Copyrights on code
released by the GNU project are generally owned by the Free Software
Foundation. But, if Richard Stallman were to hit his head in an
unfortunate contra dancing accident and decide that, henceforth, FSF-owned
code would only be released under the binary-only GPLv4, those projects
would not suffer much. Instead, the development community behind that code
- strongly influenced but not controlled by the FSF - would quickly move to
a new home and continue its work. For a practical example, see the
creation of X.org in the wake of the relicensing of XFree86.
With any luck at all, the silly scenarios outlined above will not come to
pass. But there is value in pondering how things could go. Such thought
quickly leads to the conclusion that a vibrant development community is not
just good because it leads to faster progress and more cool features. That
community is the source for the long-term support for the code, support
which is not subject to one company's quarterly results.
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