Q&A: Sun's Simon Phipps details open-source strategy

As Java moves toward open-source, other Sun products will follow, he says

As the chief open-source officer at Sun Microsystems Inc., Simon Phipps has been busy in recent months with various open-source initiatives. The company released OpenSolaris, the open-source version of its Solaris 10 Unix operating system, last year, and more recently unveiled plans to make its Java programming language open-source (see "Sun says open-source Java possible in 'months'"). In an interview with Computerworld, Phipps last week talked about Sun's upcoming open-source strategy and about what he called the incorrect view that Sun isn't fully committed to open-source software. Phipps, who joined Sun in 2000, has worked in IT for more than 20 years as a programmer, engineer, systems analyst and strategist for various companies, including IBM.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Simon Phipps

Simon PhippsAs Sun's chief open-source officer, you said you disagree with critics who argue that Sun isn't doing enough with open-source software. Why are the critics wrong? One of the things that's happened in the last five years is that people have positioned Sun as uncommitted to open-source. It's the competitive market and the press that does this. But if you look at the history, it's pretty hard to sustain that as a position. NFS [Network File System] was invented by Sun and released as free software. In 1995, Sun released the Java Platform with full source code that led to incredibly rapid adoption. Looking into the current era, Sun helped fund Mozilla as it went open-source and continues to contribute. Sun has been a fundamental player in accessibility code for GNOME. I can run down a litany of these things. We are profoundly involved in the open-source world and have been for many years.

What are Sun's plans for open-source and its products? We've actually stepped up the rate of contribution. Code talks. We've released Unix as open-source software by taking the Solaris source code. Right now, we're in the mix of putting as much as possible of our software products into open-source, including Java and NetBeans tools. For various reasons, Java has gotten people's attention as it goes into open-source, but that's just one product where we will do this.

About open-sourcing Java -- Sun made that announcement in May, but the details have seemed rather vague so far. Now what? When will this happen? The truth is we're doing it as fast as we possibly can. If I could snap my fingers and make it happen tomorrow, I would. It's not a simple endeavor. You can't just slap a license on things. You have to be sure that you have the rights to every line of code. So we have to work through all sorts of issues -- legal, access, encumbrances, relationships with Java licensees. All of these issues will take time to resolve.

So do you have any estimate on when this will finally happen for Java? I don't think it's going to be very long at all. We have staffers who have instructions that it's going to be open-source. They will get it done, and they will get it done soon. With Solaris, Sun lawyers worked on the ownership issues with that code for nearly five years before Solaris was made available for open-source. It's not going to take that long with Java.

You said that more Sun products will move to open-source. What are they and what are the plans for them? The next set of things after Java is open-sourced will be middleware products, including a portal server, an identity server and a Web server. All of those things are being considered for open-source.

This will happen between now and next year. During this financial year [for the company], you can expect to see the lion's share of these products be announced for open-source.

So with a wider move to open-source software, what is the strategy here for the company? This is all a dramatic change for how Sun will do business. We are restructuring our product portfolio for the market we think is coming. We're not checking out completely from the old world. We still see products for customers who still want boxed products. What matters to us is to create volume, and when we create volume, we'll create revenue. We made Unix available for free with OpenSolaris 10. But customers want services for patches and help. We find that most customers want that service and pay us for it. By giving it away, we have increased the use of Solaris in a large way and have gotten larger revenue for support. We're taking a big risk giving away the free rights to use Solaris Unix. Sun is also shipping out free servers to customers for 60-day trials, including return shipping if needed. We've discovered that most of the users who try [the server] love it and keep it. We're not locking in customers, but are setting them free.

But despite those business risks, Sun is still looking to offer more open-source software from its product lines? What is the hoped for end game from this transformation? This is "iceberg economics" here. Below the water, there's a huge amount of work to do with open-sourcing Java and reconstructing Sun for the coming world of the networked economy. [Above the water], people expect to pay for things when they find they are useful, rather than just when they acquire them.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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