Subject: Software personalities (was "What should Sun do?")
From: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller <robin@roblimo.com>
Date: Wed, 02 Feb 2005 06:40:08 -0500


>Curiously, since Oracle and Sun are being breathed with the same breath
>in this discussion, I tried to half-heartedly flog the idea of the two
>companies merging.  Again, ~2001/2 timeframe.  If they had, they _might_
>have produced a hardware + platforms + services company to match IBM.
>Personalities would have got in the way, and possibly did.
>

Personalities... ah, yes.  Company chiefs' and project leaders' 
personalities seem to have more effect on the software business than on 
any other business outside of the entertainment industry. Other business 
sectors are much more restrained; most companies tend to be team 
efforts, stodgy and slow-moving, ruled by rules and committees and 
consensus. Sure, aviation may have had its Howard Hughes, William 
Randolph Hearst may have been a colorful media owner once upon a time , 
and a third of America's steel output may once have been controlled by 
Andrew Carnegie's whims. But that was then and this is now.

To me, this is the secret of writing about IT: Treat it as human drama, 
not as a series of product announcements.

A former coworker once said, "It's not that Microsoft's management is 
sane, just that in a business where insanity is normal, they're a little 
*less insane* than most others. And that's why they do well."

When we dsicuss Sun, we're not talking about technology development. 
We're not asking, "Is Java a superior technology to .NET?" Nope. We're 
wondering, "What will Jolting Jonny and Slavering Scott do next? Who 
will they go up against in this week's tag team wrestling match?"

It's not business. It's professional wrestling!

Ford's CEO has never dressed up as a giant battery to show that he loves 
electric cars despite having said bad things about them in the past.

Meanwhile, we're seeing a change in open source and free software 
spotlighters. Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond are losing influence in 
the public/media sense, while the bland/corporate, sales-oriented Stu 
Cohen is being trotted out more, with a newly media-friendly Linus 
Torvalds  standing next to him. And the tactic is working. "Such and 
such company joins OSDL" was once news. Now it's a twice-a-week routine 
press release. Everybody but Microsoft seems to be joining up.

Even Unisys, the original anti-open source patent pirate (remember the 
GIF "submarine patents?") now has their logo on the OSDL Web site.

Suave HP executive Martin Fink is more likely to headline a modern, 
corporate-oriented Linux conference than "community spokesperson" Bruce 
Perens.

Our discussions of Red Hat and Novell tend to revolve around market 
share and mindshare points, not their latest package advances or kernel 
contributions.

At some point, given the colorful nature of the executives running the 
world's largest proprietary software companies, open source will be seen 
as the buttoned-down, conservative choice, not as the quirky outsider. 
As a case in point, contrast Oracle's Larry Ellison with MySQL's Mårten 
Mickos. Mårten comes across as a serious, trustworthy executive who 
keeps his mind on MySQL, while Larry comes across as a big basket of ego 
who is at least as interested in fast cars, girlfirends, and racing 
yachts as in producing quality software. I suspect that outside of the 
Silicon Valley culture, where giant egos are considered normal, Mårten 
Mickos comes across as more businesslike than Larry Ellison, and that 
this perception -- which is based on my personal observations of both 
men, not on PR-created impressions -- will go a long way toward making 
MySQL a direct competitor to Oracle.

Beyond impressions of people who run companies and open source projects, 
there's another safety factor in open source: That the project leader's 
personality isn't nearly as important to an open source project as a 
CEO's personality is to a proprietary software company's products. When 
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said, under oath, during Microsoft's 
antitrust trial, that if he didn't like the judge's decision he'd 
withdraw Windows from the market, it was a credible threat because no 
one besides Microsoft is allowed to make, distribute, modify or update 
Windows.

Linus Torvalds and Stu Cohen can't threaten, Ballmer-like, to take Linux 
away from the world on a whim. They could only take the name away. The 
kernel and everything that surrounds it would go on without them.

The freedom to make, maintain, and distribute your own version of a 
critical program is a major "safety valve" built into all open source 
and free software. In the long run, it is the biggest reason a concerned 
corporate manager should choose free or open source software over 
proprietary alternatives. Your company may not have the resources to 
maintain an operating system or other major piece of software on its 
own, but if that software is essential to your business, it is likely to 
be essential to many others with whom you can cooperate to keep it alive 
and growing -- and your company's share of that new project's costs will 
almost certianly be less than you'd spend to purchase equivalent 
proprietary software.

So we have a double bonus with free and open source software: First, 
we're starting to see open source product leaders and spokespeople who 
are saner and more businesslike than their proprietary software industry 
counterparts. And second, with open source software, the project 
leader's whims can't affect that software's users nearly as much as the 
whims of a proprietary software company's CEO can affect its customers.

This pair of open source advantages hasn't yet penetrated the 
software-using mainsteam. But it will. And when it does, proprietary 
software businesses will have a choice between converting to open source 
or losing their corporate market.

 - Robin

* I seem to have written a complete commentary piece here. I suppose 
I'll clean it up and run it on NewsForge. Might as well. But remember - 
you read it here first! :)