Developers Don’t Buy Things, They Join Things

One of the smartest software execs I’ve worked with had a saying, “Developers don’t buy things, they join things.” That’s been a pretty focusing statement for us over the years, and as we enter the new year, you should expect 2005 to be one in which we place an ever heightening focus on our dialog with the community, and the developer community in particular. And not simply maintaining the dialog we have today, but finding new constituencies, and expanding our reach. Establishing a relationship with a developer is all about starting a conversation – one that always flowers. And often into opportunity.

One community with whom we’ve maintained a strong (nothing’s ever perfect) dialog over the past few years is the Java developer community. It’s vibrant and thriving, not only among the ranks of commercial companies, but also the looser, self-managing communities (where there are some truly outstanding examples of community engagement and dialog).

The principal mechanisms through which we’ve maintained that dialog are the Java Community Process (the most comprehensive open process in the history of computing); and the evolution of our NetBeans open source development environment. Our enterprise offerings begin to really push the notion that development is conversational by incorporating structured instant messaging within the development environment, so while you’re coding away, you can interact with your cohorts, even if they’re in Prague, Bangalore, Menlo Park, Hamburg, Tel Aviv and Tokyo (where, at Sun, many are). Our newest addition, Java Studio Creator, lets us approach an entirely new developer community, web app developers more accustomed to Visual Basic.

But a developer environment without a desktop is like a media company without a search engine – ultimately vulnerable. And what’s been interesting over the course of the past year is the growing interest in alternatives to Windows desktops. Equally interesting is how little of that interest appears in corporate America – vs. across the rest of the world.

But academia’s a different world. And one of my favorite ironies of 2004 was walking through a computer science building funded by Bill Gates, and seeing students running Sun’s linux-based Java Desktop and StarOffice. Returning to our roots in the academic community, the spawning ground for Sun, and a ton of open source development, is a big part of our ’05 focus. (Remember, the U in SUNW is University.)

That said, developers (and most users) experience the web through a browser. So the growing momentum around Mozilla Firefox is particularly gratifying. If you took out your magnifying glass, you’d find a lot of Sun employees and executives contributing to the ad that just ran in the New York Times. The world needs a strong cross platform web browser, and the Mozilla team has done an outstanding job. And I’d put the Firefox community (enabled by the Mozilla Public License), near the top of all open source community efforts. Hats off, Mitchell.

The OpenOffice community’s alive and well, too – as the foundation for commercially supported suites (StarOffice among them), and as the most popular and affordable alternative to Microsoft’s Office. And by last count, it’s got to be one of the most popular open source products on the planet – safely spanning the Windows environment, the Mac, Solaris and most linux distros. And StarOffice 8 is shaping up to be the strongest, fastest, safest ever – with teams of localizers helping to bridge the digital divide around the world.

And then there’s Solaris. Whose community has been almost exclusively users and operators, but not developers. Given our roots in the open source BSD Unix, we really view the open sourcing of Solaris as a return to the community. It certainly feels that way. I’ve heard a rousing chorus of support from far off audiences, from students in France, faculty members in Brazil, research institutes in Russia. The open source community is truly everywhere. And it’s evident that beyond features in the OS, we’ve got a big competitive opportunity in creating the right governance model for Solaris, as well. There’s a lot to be learned from the Java Community Process, and a lot to be learned from the linux world, as well.

I was talking to Greg Papadopoulos last week about a big network equipment company that he’d just met with. They were complaining about how changes they’d wanted in the linux kernel weren’t being accepted – so they were left with having to create a fork of the kernel (which IBM gleefully built and was now being paid to support). That fork seemed like a good idea at the time – but it was now unsustainable, given no software vendor could be convinced to support it. So the true cost of the IBM-created fork was prohibitive, and the company was being forced to Red Hat. (I saw the same thing occur on a recent trip to Europe, where a government agency had been convinced by IBM to create their own distro in the name of “technology independence” – another expensive folly now being undone). It’s from conversations like that that we’re learning – and having created in the JCP a process supported by Google, Vodafone and even Zend and Apache, my sense is we’re starting from a good knowledge base. Good governance is critical for building community.

Another really interesting and growing community is the open source database community. There are some really interesting (and rapidly growing) open source databases out there. Not many folks talk about them, curiously. The most interesting to me are Red Hat’s database, known as Postgres, and MySQL. For the most part, those products lead the open source database world. What makes Red Hat’s database so interesting is that two of Red Hat’s biggest backers are database companies, and the continuing evolution of the Red Hat database implies as Red Hat grows, so will the ubiquity of a free alternative to Oracle and IBM. Maybe we should challenge Red Hat to a scalability contest on Postgres. Hm. Hey Matthew, what do you think? Let’s find a neutral benchmark. I’ll wear a red hat if we lose. You can wear a Solaris t-shirt 🙂 We might even provide the hardware.

The upshot of all this? Developers don’t buy things, they join things. And to the extent we’re positioning Sun to start growing new customers, all such opportunities start, at some point, through a conversation. Typically with a developer. Sometimes that conversation occurs through a blog (and the dialog that ensues), sometimes through a code base, through an IM session, or an IDE. But there’s a new dialog starting, every minute of every day. It’s just a matter of joining in.

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