Sun's Quasi-Open Source Model
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Open Source movement should be
blushing from head to toe by now. Its most recent admirer is Sun Microsystems, who
has just announced that it will make the source code to its Solaris operating system
available under something it calls a "Community Source" license. In making such a
bold move (Solaris is their core product) Sun is embracing everything that has made the
Open Source movement such a success. Everything, that is, except that bit about opening
up their source code.
Sun is attempting a quasi-Open Source move because while they want what Linux has
(an army of talented developers working for free) they also want what Linux doesn't
have (commercial control, patents on intellectual property, and a steady stream of
income). They are trying to split the difference by creating a license which only allows
you access to Solaris source code if you promise not to make any money from it, and only
if you agree to co-ordinate any changes you make with Sun. In order to stave off criticism
of these restrictions (which don't exist under real Open Source licenses), Sun has
wrapped itself in the flag of community -- after all, what could possibly be wrong with a
"Community Source" license?
In net-speak, "community" no longer means "a gathering of likeminded people," it is just
a reductive variable written into every dot-com business plan. The problem with Sun's
"Community Source" is that Open Source software is not written by communities, it is
written by individuals -- thousands of individual developers, each sharing their work
with the others. The difference is a subtle but important one; Sun is betting that Open
Source software works as well as it does because of community feeling and collaboration,
when in fact it is mostly driven by individual selfishness. In an Open Source project,
new features come not from what a developer imagines some hypothetical client might
possibly want to do someday, it comes from what the developer him or herself wants to do
right now. Like a game of "Which of these things is not like the others?," commercially
developed software is starkly different from Open Source projects: Linux exists because
Linus Torvalds wanted a Unix clone that ran on cheap hardware, Apache exists because
Brian Behelendorf wanted a good web server, Perl exists because Larry Wall wanted to make
writing reports easier, Solaris exists because Sun wanted to make money.
Most of the valuable aspects of open source software -- its cleanliness in
implementation, its compact size, its ability to run on cheap hardware -- are a direct
result of this selfishness, since developers are making the software they want to use.
Like the paradox of the free market, where reducing central management increases economic
efficiency, the paradox of Open Source is that by reducing commercial control, software
can actually improve faster. What Sun doesn't understand is that this core aspect of Open
Source is indivisible: The thing that makes Linux so desirable for developers is the very
thing that gives commercial software companies indigestion -- it transfers control of the
software to the individual. There's no way to split the difference, because there's no
difference to split.
Sun's license guts the very freedoms that drive open source adoption in the first place,
because without real transfer of power, there is no incentive to use open source software.
And this problem is not Sun's alone -- giants like Microsoft and Oracle will also need
strategies for dealing with Open Source, and sooner rather than later. As with so much
about the internet, Open Source is about removing the middleman and transferring control
to the individual: Linux is the net's first disintermediated operating system. No matter
how many iterations of its "Community Source" license it goes through, in the end Sun is
going to discover that the only way to get the advantages which the Open Source movement
enjoys is to open its source.