February 27, 2002

Why can't Sun get its Open Source commitment right?

Author: JT Smith

- By Jack Bryar -
Less than two weeks after Scott McNealy put on a cross-eyed penguin suit to convince analysts that Sun was really committing to Open Source, the company has become entangled in another series of PR blunders that make observers wonder if the company will ever get its relationship right with the Open Source crowd.

When Sun Microsystems went before the analyst community a couple of weeks ago to publicize its Linux initiative, the company's irrepressible CEO brought the house down. As McNealy showed up dressed as a cross-eyed version of Tux, the Linux mascot, he muttered, "Lou Gerstner
didn't have to do this."

Gerstner certainly didn't. However, the former IBM CEO didn't have as
much to prove to a skeptical Open Source community. Unfortunately for
McNealy and Sun, the company has spent the last two weeks annoying the Linux
and Open Source communities with a series of initiatives that seemed
designed to undermine its Linux friendly messaging.

One of the most irritating moves by the Sun team has been
disinformation campaign aimed at frightening major corporations away from the
platform. In a recent "Reality Check" article Sun's chief competitive officer Shahin Khan claimed that Linux couldn't scale and that it "can't respond to the workload demands of Web serving." In a crude attempt to buttress Sun's claim that Linux is appropriate only on "low end" servers, Khan claimed that Linux on "big iron" was inherently a bad idea. He claimed that Linux on a IBM mainframe wasn't really Linux, but a proprietary hybrid.

In the same article, Kahn exaggerated the complexity and cost of
support required for Linux. He suggested that getting Linux apps to run on a
mainframe would require support from multiple Linux platform vendors, and that
support costs just for Turbolinux would exceed $100,000 a year.

This type of crude disinformation will not win the company
many friends in the Open Source community.

Neither will picking fights with leading Open Source organizations.

Sun's dispute with the Apache Foundation escalated this week.
Members of the Apache Foundation's Jakarta Project, which creates and maintains
Open Source solutions on the Java platform went
attacking Sun for its lack of cooperation over licensing and
for throwing into doubt what could and could not be released as Open
Source applications. What made the public attack all the more extraordinary
was the number of current and former Sun
who are part of the Jakarta Project. These included
James Duncan Davidson, Pierpaolo Fumagalli, Petr Jiricka, Arnout J. Kuiper,
Ramesh Mandava, Rajiv Mordani, and Harish Prabhandham, among many others. When
your own employees are taking on your legal department in public, you're in trouble.

To top it off, the company leaked news that it
planned to charge for StarOffice, the previously free, good-if-not-great desktop office
suite. Sun has been offering StarOffice as a free download since acquiring
the German company Star Division in 1999.

After letting the story hang for a day or two, company representatives
weakly denied published reports by Germany's Heise Online. Heise quoted Martin Haerling, saying he was a Sun
marketing director. According to Haerling, StarOffice 6.0 would be free only for
Solaris users. The company would charge license fees for the Linux and Windows versions of the software when it was formally released this spring. In denying the story, Sun spokesman Russ Castronovo flatly
to deny that the company would be charging for at least some
versions of the software in the near future.

While StarOffice has yet to generate a serious challenge to
Microsoft's Office suite, the company reported that more than 8 million copies of the
software had been downloaded, including nearly a million copies of the 6.0 beta
software. In the process, StarOffice has emerged as one of the most
common desktop applications to be found on Linux desktops.

Sun's defenders point out that an Open Source version, called OpenOffice would be unaffected by the decision. The company suggested a proprietary StarOffice 6.0 "retail" product might include third-party code that might not otherwise be available. Others at Sun have claimed that commercial clients wouldn't use StarOffice unless they were convinced that Sun would continue to support the platform, and charge accordingly.

However, many members of the Open Source community were outraged.
They claimed that volunteers spent significant time debugging and testing
StarOffice because Sun had declared the office suite to be "free to be
changed. Free to be improved. Free to adapt to meet the needs of any
situation." When the announcement was posted on Slashdot this weekend, many of the
more than 600
cried, "treachery!" One poster said, "It is becoming immensely clear that Sun is intending to hijack the open-source movement."

That's unlikely, but Sun's behavior has been a puzzle. IDC analyst Dan
Kusnetzky said to C|Net
recently, "Sun has done a lot for the
open-source community, but they somehow always say something in a way that would
offend ..." The company has continued to support the community with tools
such as ABIcheck and programs such as Netbeans. Sun has financed the work of
Ximian and the Indian development company Wipro to complete work on a
polished, handicapped accessible version of the Gnome desktop. Gnome will soon
become the standard interface for Sun's Solaris boxes. However,
StarOffice has been been Sun's highest profile Open Source project. The
Register suggested
that if the company went through with plans to
charge for the Linux version of Star Office, "Sun risks putting the nose of
Linux developers out of joint" yet again.

Sun reportedly is considering a price point of between $50 and $100 for
StarOffice amid warnings that the product was unlikely to generate any
meaningful revenue, and could destroy demand for the platform.

In the meantime, even as Sun continues to struggle with how to live
with Open Source, IBM claimed recently it has made back the entire
$1 billion it said it invested in the Linux operating system in 2001.


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