Sun’s Red Hatting Game
Boxed in by falling market share, Sun needs to learn to fly with all players in the open source community.
Sun’s President Jonathan Schwartz seems to have learned the fine art of posturing from the master. In a campaign worthy of Sun co-founder Scott McNealy’s earlier Microsoft bashing, Sun has now targeted Red Hat with venom and vitriol. Since Sun’s settlement prevents it from throwing punches at Microsoft, is Red Hat just a convenient punching bag? But one has to question Sun’s wisdom of picking on a dramatically smaller company. Why not go after IBM, the 800-pound gorilla? At the same time that Sun is proud to contribute to the open source community, it is equally proud of its proprietary products. Ditto IBM. Schwartz should understand that titans with similar portfolios are much better crowd-pleasers in the boxing ring.
To pump up Sun’s anti-Red Hat campaign, Schwartz is using all available channels - from his personal blog, to the press. His message is simple - don’t forget Sun. Sun is an original stakeholder in the open source game. Its contributions include NFS, OpenOffice and many other technologies. However, instead of working collaboratively to grow the nascent market for everyone, this divisive campaign splinters and seeks to control the OSS community. Replacing solutions of the OSS community that’s forgotten its many debts to Sun Microsystems with Sun-controlled solutions is, after all, what the OSS pioneers have always wanted, right? Hello, Jonathan, are you still with me?
The Real Trouble with Sun
No upstream development model - One of the key differences between Sun’s software engineering model and Red Hat’s is in their mode of development. Sun’s controlled and private development model contrasts with Red Hat’s upstream development model. In the upstream approach, various contributors who are part of the open source community work on the features and functionality of Linux, Apache or Webmin, in both large and small projects. Red Hat is just one player in this broad and deep stream of talent. It then captures, enhances and packages value from the many willing, upstream contributors. Sun’s model, on the other hand, is handicapped by the relatively shallow pond of in-house innovation applied to a few prioritized features in Solaris and other products. This slows its ability to compete in the constantly evolving and fast-growing technology market.
Desperate tiger - Despite forays into software as well as services, Sun is still a hardware company. Unfortunately, expensive proprietary products can no longer compete with cheap commodity hardware. Sun’s strategy has been to cut hardware prices to regain market share, and at the same time try to devalue the growing attraction of commodity Intel hardware bundled with OSS. Armed with a pride of proprietary technologies and a robust patent portfolio, a cornered tiger may display claws and fangs much longer than SCO’s, another similarly cornered tiger from the old Unix jungles.
To be a better citizen in the open source community, what does Sun need to do? It faces the same challenge that afflicts other large proprietary vendors including Microsoft.
Sun needs to learn this “upstream thing”. That is, how to share in a product-and-services mix that incorporates the contributions of others, at the same time giving back to the community to enhance its value for everyone. Sun has been very good at sending contributions “downstream” but has never been able to learn the trick of full reciprocity. Sun just has to observe, among others, Red Hat. Sun will quickly see that to work collaboratively and to enhance, package and then return a better product to the community, produces a spiral of innovation and value. This upward spiral benefits everyone, including Sun! It is the pride of ownership that blinds people like Jonathan Schwartz and Scott McNealy. They may be innovators, and even great contributors, but they are incapable of being collaborators. Real collaboration requires the full sharing and acceptance of other players’ abilities and contributions, as much as one’s own.