Years back, Sun was under pressure in the market. Although many users loved our core Solaris operating system, others thought it was built for high end computers, not grid systems. Our computer business had failed to keep pace with the rest of the industry – which meant our volume systems looked expensive. In combination, and with a poor track record of supporting Solaris off of Sun hardware, we gave customers one choice – leave Sun. Many did. Those were the dark days.
Where did they go? They went to GNU/Linux, a free and open source operating system built by a growing community, running on x86 systems. Why? Because the pair (“Linux on a whitebox”) delivered, then, better grid performance, with more flexibility. We didn’t erect barriers to exit, we promoted customer choice. Even when it cut the wrong way, as it did here. And yes, it hurt.
With business down and customers leaving, we had more than a few choices at our disposal. We were invited by one company to sue the beneficiaries of open source. We declined. We could join another and sue our customers. That seemed suicidal. We were offered the choice to scuttle Solaris, and resell someone else’s operating system. We declined. And we were encouraged to innovate by developers and customers who wanted Sun around, who saw the value we delivered through true systems engineering.
So we took that advice. We started by securing the software assets we were building – so that we could convey them under trusted open source licenses to a community we’d just started nurturing. We redoubled our focus on innovation, in hardware and software, that would differentiate our offerings. Not just as good as the competition, but vastly better. We supported Linux on our SPARC systems, and forced ourselves to open up every business we operate – Solaris wasn’t the hammer for all nails. Nor was SPARC. Nor Java.
In essence, we decided to innovate, not litigate.
Net result? Our contributions, from Java to OpenOffice to Gnome and Mozilla, now account for in excess of 25% of all lines of code within your average Linux distribution (yup, read that sentence again – or see the report, here, page 51).
We joined forces with the likes of Google and IBM and Red Hat to drive the Open Document Format, accelerating document interchange. ODF is now accelerating globally, as the standard trusted by governments and academic institutions for multi-generational document interchange. It is an unstoppable force, no threat can kill a country’s drive for independence or self-sufficiency (remember, the network’s a social utility, too).
Over the past two years, since committing to build a broad community around OpenSolaris, we’ve distributed nearly 8 million Solaris licenses, with nearly 70% on HP, Dell and IBM hardware (yes, we were surprised). And we’ve seen the OpenSolaris community burgeon to roughly 48,000 members, with only 2,000 or so working at Sun. (And I was with a leading company in the blogosphere today who told me they’d moved their core search systems to OpenSolaris – adoption feels like it’s accelerating.)
We’ve seen Java’s acceptance made permanent, on servers and desktops and mobile phones and set tops, in no small part due to our decision to use the GPL license (to simplify the Linux/Java combination on consumer devices and industrial applications). And most importantly, we’ve seen our software business grow – as our revenue model migrated from up front licenses to a subscription model that put payment closer to the source of value (services rendered). Embracing free and open source led to more revenue, too.
We invented our multicore Niagara UltraSPARC systems, massively powerful systems that redefine power efficiency for web-scale businesses – and we have a spectrum of design wins that recover and amplify the business we lost five years ago. Innovation and an embrace of the community (we GPL’d the core design of the chips) have led customers and collaborators to return in droves.
So what’s my view on this interview in Fortune – in which one of Sun’s business partners claims the open source community is trampling their patent portfolio?
You would be wise to listen to the customers you’re threatening to sue – they can leave you, especially if you give them motivation. Remember, they wouldn’t be motivated unless your products were somehow missing the mark.
All of which is to say – no amount of fear can stop the rise of free media, or free software (they are the same, after all). The community is vastly more innovative and powerful than a single company. And you will never turn back the clock on elementary school students and developing economies and aid agencies and fledgling universities – or the Fortune 500 – that have found value in the wisdom of the open source community. Open standards and open source software are literally changing the face of the planet – creating opportunity wherever the network can reach.
That’s not a genie any litigator I know can put back in a bottle.