Subject: Re: Sun, BSD, and GNU
From: "Tim O'Reilly" <>
Date: Sun, 30 May 1999 17:29:46 -0700

John Gilmore wrote:

John, thanks for the great detailed history lesson!  I
particularly agree that the key advantage for sun was simply that
they didn't need to do both proprietary hardware AND an OS.  They
only had half the problem their competitors had.  

They also had the key idea that open networking was going to be a
key part of the future and kept their eyes more or less on that
> Speaking as the one of the engineers of Sun's products, and as
> recipient of a significant but tiny fraction of those billions,
> Berkeley's advantage was that it had running code when Sun needed it.
> If running GNU code, and an understanding of the market dynamics of
> free software, had existed in 1981, I believe Sun could have made
> those billions by using GPL software.

I agree completely.  I have never argued that hardware companies
in particular couldn't use the GPL easily.  My only argument was
with the assertion that "the GPL is best for business, hands
down."  I merely wanted to point out that in general, BSD-style
licenses have had much greater commercial impact, up to now,
since they allowed companies to build either free OR proprietary
value on top of the software, whichever seemed to help their
business the most.

Unlike a lot of the people on the list, I think that the ability
of Berkeley style licenses to swing either way as needed is a
feature, not a bug.  I respect the opposite point of view, but my
sense is that a lot of GPL partisans don't realize how much they
are in a symbiotic relationship with proprietary software anyway.
Berkeley-style licenses acknowledge that proprietary and free can
coexist successfully.

I also like the basic generosity behind Berkeley style licenses. 
For all the shortcomings of X and the consortium approach, I
always admired Bob Schiefler's approach to all this.  He knew he
was creating something for the common good, and was giving it
away specifically to enable both free and commercial activity on
top of it.  I also think that the fragmentation and stagnation of
X had a lot more to do with industry politics (other companies
trying to gang up on Sun) than it did with inherent liabilities
of the X license.  

I will be very surprised if the "lets twist things just to hobble
the lead dog" mindset doesn't eventually emerge in the Linux
community, GPL notwithstanding.  We haven't seen the competition
get hot and heavy there yet, so we're comparing the young,
idealistic stage of Linux with the commercial war wounds of
Berkeley UNIX and friends.

>         John
> PS: Sun has about 3/4 the annual revenue of Microsoft -- roughly
> twelve billion dollars.  Sun could transition to GPL software, since
> GPL doesn't threaten most of Sun's revenue.  Microsoft could not; most
> of Microsoft's revenue is directly derived from duplicating software.
> This may be a good reason for Sun to move to GPL, since it would put
> pressure on Microsoft that Microsoft can't easily resist.  Note that
> Microsoft is actively buying into hardware companies (e.g. AT&T and
> cable TV companies), probably as a hedge against a completely
> software-based revenue stream.

This is a cool idea.  I have never understood (e.g. with the
SCSL) why Sun cares that much about the kind of meager licensing
revenue they get from Java (and they hope, with Jini) when their
basic business is hardware.  But on the other hand, I haven't
analyzed their revenue, so I'm probably talking out of a cocked

Tim O'Reilly @ O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.  
101 Morris Street, Sebastopol, CA 95472   
707-829-0515 ext 266, Fax 707-829-0104,