Open source writers wary of Oracle’s real intentions

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Larry Ellison has just sent a ripple of excitement and fear through the open source software world. The chief executive of Oracle staked out a position in one of the fastest-growing corners of the tech industry on Tuesday with the acquisition of Sleepycat Software, which makes database software, and is understood to be negotiating to buy JBoss, a leading maker of “middleware” used to run applications over the internet.

Part of the aim, say Oracle executives, is to take on a wider role in the open source movement. Sleepycat’s code, for instance, is often bundled with other widely used products such as the Linux operating system and Apache web server.

“This gives us more of a seat at the table with these other open source projects,” says Robert Shimp, vice-president of technology marketing at Oracle.

For many open source executives, though, the prospect of sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Mr Ellison seems to invoke unease.

“There’s a fair amount of nervousness,” says David Dargo, chief technology officer of Ingres, another open source database company, of the mood this week at a leading open source conference in San Francisco.

The concerns spring partly from suspicion at Oracle’s motives. Sceptics claim that the software giant, whose fortunes are founded on its commercial database products, is really only interested in insulating itself from attack by a wave of new rivals whose cheaper products and different sales approach pose a long-term threat to its business. “I think Oracle is digging the moat a little deeper around the fortress of software and maintenance revenue,” says Mr Dargo. There are fears that rather than trying to co-opt open source, Mr Ellison is bent on subverting it.

Oracle’s acquisition late last year of InnoDB, a small Finnish open source company, has added to these suspicions. The five-person company produces the storage “engine” that sits at the heart of MySQL, the database produced by Europe’s biggest open source software company. By seizing the core technology of a rival, goes the reasoning, Mr Ellison could disrupt its product development – or at least spread doubts among potential MySQL customers.

Critics also fear that the intrusion of software giants such as Oracle will disrupt a development approach that has proved successful at creating big and complex pieces of corporate software. Often based on broad online groups of volunteer programmers, open source companies must master delicate community dynamics to drive their projects.

“I’m not convinced any corporate entity can own an open source project,” says Mark de Visser, chief marketing officer of Zend, another open source company Oracle is understood to have had acquisition discussions with.

If Mr Ellison’s motives are viewed with suspicion, however, his cash has had an altogether more welcome effect. The sight of Oracle and IBM buying companies generated a new level of excitement among the venture capitalists who have crowded back to the market in the past three years. “It’s good for open source – it validates the value that open source provides,” says Marten Mickos, chief executive of MySQL, which has emerged, along with Jboss, as the leader of the second generation of open source companies that have sprung up behind Red Hat, one of the companies behind the Linux operating system. MySQL nearly doubled in size last year and had revenues of about €30m ($36m).

Oracle says its purchase of Sleepycat signals its belief that open source products are part of the mainstream.

“We have definitely seen that our customers are adopting a combination of open source and closed source products,” says Mr Shimp. Being able to sell both types of software would make Oracle “a much more strategic partner”. The test for Oracle will be whether it can absorb Sleepycat and others without disrupting their approach to software development and business models.

“Their DNA is not one of commodity software, where prices are low and volumes are high,” says Mr Mickos. “It’s about their culture and tradition. It’s a mindset question.”

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