Is MySQL's Fate the Future of Open Source?

It's not every day that the entire technical press goes bonkers over news in the open source world, but that's what happened last week, when Sun announced that it was buying MySQL. Doubtless, the pleasant roundness of the sum involved - $1 billion – helped, as did the fact that most of that was cash. But leaving aside the sense of satisfaction that events in the free software world should be suddenly thrust centre-stage, Sun's move does raise a larger question about the fate of all open source start-ups.

Ever since Red Hat bought Jboss for $420 million in April 2006, MySQL was clearly the leader of the rest of the business open source pack. It is used by many high-profile sites – including Google – as well as the vast majority of the main Web 2.0 startups to do the backend heavy lifting. It might not be in the Oracle class, but as Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma teaches us, relentless technological progress tends to mean that the underpowered underdog eventually becomes good enough for the vast majority of users, while the overpowered top dog – Oracle in this case – finds itself innovating for the sake of innovating, and adding ever-more features that nobody uses. This makes MySQL the GNU/Linux of the database world.

Most people – myself included – assumed that MySQL was heading towards a hugely-successful IPO, not least because this is what MySQL's CEO Marten Mickos, always led us to believe:

GM: Investors obviously expect something back at some point, so are you looking to get bought or to do an IPO?
MM: We're aiming for an IPO. We're actually aiming for an independent existence and to do that you need to do an IPO, but the IPO is not the aim, the IPO is just a step. People ask, “What is your exit plan?”, and we say that we're not going to exit.

The fact that he decided to take the money from Sun probably has much to do with the dark clouds gathering over the world's economies, and the resultant dampener they are likely to put on the stock markets and public offerings.

Never mind that Sun has been increasingly active in the open source world, with its donations of code in the form of OpenOffice.org, OpenSolaris and Java; never mind that in some sense Sun's origins go back to the roots of free software: the fact remains that probably the most important of the rising business stars has been swallowed up. The question is: are we seeing the beginning of the end for all the open source startups?

This possibility needs to be faced, because in the wake of Sun's high-profile acquisition of MySQL, other big software companies are going to be looking at similar moves so as not to be left behind in the open source game. MySQL's price tag was pretty serious money, but some of the other open source startups could probably be picked up for much less – to the extent that they would represent small change for the big old dinosaurs, especially the ones with more cash than ideas. A few of the names that I'd certainly be considering include Alfresco (enterprise content management), SugarCRM (customer relationship management), Hyperic (systems management) and Jaspersoft (business intelligence), but that's just the start: there are dozens of acquisition candidates out there.

In the event of some or even all of these outfits being gobbled up by companies with Sun-like ambitions, the code would of course still be freely available, since most of the top open source startups use the GNU GPL, sometimes with a commercial licence alongside. But the nature of the business open source world would be changed dramatically: no longer would it be made up of plucky startups, but of corporate divisions, which are inevitably more staid.

What the open source community needs to consider is whether such a change would be a problem for the larger ecosystem? Would it result in the corporatisation of open source, and the loss of the vitality that has propelled it to its surprisingly powerful position in just a few years? Would it lead to debilitating forks, as disgruntled coders stormed off to set up their own new projects, and maybe even new companies? Or would it, on the contrary, actually help the open source world expand even faster, by bringing additional resources to bear (Sun's main justification for acquiring MySQL)?

If the money offered is truly generous – as is entirely possible – why should the fledgling open source stars turn it down? The VCs who back them certainly won't want to, and maybe the employees of the company wouldn't either. So does the free software community have any right to warn against such a move just because it might damage that community? More to the point, if there is a view that such a transformation would be bad, is there anything that can be done in practical terms to avoid it? For example, should an effort be made to unite many of the leading open source outfits into one company to gain some critical mass otherwise lacking?

I certainly don't have any answers to these questions, but I do believe that people need to start thinking about them seriously. I fear we don't have much time before the knock-on effects of Sun's move begin to make themselves felt: Nokia's announcement that it hopes to acquire Trolltech, although not directly related, is nonetheless part of the same broader trend. And once a domino-like ripple of acquisitions starts to pass through the open source world, it will probably be too late to do much about it anyway.

Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.

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fox's picture

Maybe in the future MySQL Not will always free of charge

not the first similar event

beso's picture

i would want to remember what has happened some years ago with suse and gnome. i think that every single linux user knows about novell being the first big one to invest into linux and to put all its effort into that.
and by big one i intend a company that has always been bounded to windows and then started to support what it thought it was the best tech and have foresaw the capabilities of open source development. now opensuse and gnome communities are really numerous and novell's devs are involved with many good projects around the world (openoffice - ms office filter integration, radeonhd development just to mention some of them). i think that big ones involved into opensource would put other dinosaurs to search for alternatives that wouldn't be simple to find if the first on the market would get the best product.
sun has made a good move and would surely start to see the fruits of its new project indiana as novell has done when he invested into suse+gnome. nokia aquiring trolltech is meant to control the new android and openmoko, in my opinion, since trolltech's qt4 is the base development tool for these future smartphones, so for nokia to invest into it would mean to possess a golden egg chicken that would make its development more flexible and fast and would put nokia into a priviledged position in the mobile phones market. removing gpl from qt4 would mean a boicot from the all the opensource world, but gpl3 is also quite bad, so i think that qt4 would go with gpl2 instead, so that nokia would have more opportunities on its revenue.

I think we also need to

johnrobert's picture

I think we also need to remember that having a wave of established open source companies being purchased for serious money will probably lead to a new wave of open source startups. Entrepreneurs follow the money, and this is a lot of money going to the open source model. Rather than leading to a permanent hegemony of large, conservative firms that might potentially stifle the creativity of open source, these purchases could accelerate the adoption of the open source model by new startups and the business community generally.

"Entrepreneurs follow the

Anonymous's picture

"Entrepreneurs follow the money..."
While that may be true, many open source developers are not entrepreneurs. There are a large number of developers that do it for fun, recognition, or just to prove big business wrong.

That's one factor

Glyn Moody's picture

But another might be that as each niche becomes filled - JBoss for middleware, MySQL for databases etc. - there aren't any major areas where a startup might find an untapped market. And taking on an established open source player is much harder than taking on an established proprietary company.

Good points, but is the sky really falling?

J Antman's picture

You make some very good points. However, I think that a lot of people are overreacting to the Sun acquisition. Let me say now that I work for Sun, but I'm a mere college-kid intern, so my knowledge of what goes on inside Sun isn't much more than anyone else who reads Digg (sort of like the joke about the CIA getting their news from CNN?).

But I can honestly say that I get the feeling that Sun's intentions with open source are true to the spirit of Free software. Granted, the company has 10,000 employees... it takes a while for one man to change that many minds. There are still rumors of people who prefer the old, closed way of being. But I really feel that Sun's collective heart is in the right place.

The issue here isn't whether companies will buy up startups, but what level of corporate altruism they will have. If they can handle buying a company like MySQL, keeping the main (Free) product line *as is* and letting development go on, and just making money off of support and the value-added (Enterprise) version, then it will be good for everyone. The software project will get capital for new development work, and the community will get a boost - if I thought I could start a software company and get bought out in ten years for $1B, I'd be dropping out of school and coding 24/7!

MySQL and GPL3

Anonymous's picture

MySQL moving to GPL3 under Sun, it basically means that most uses of MySQL will now require a commercial license to protect community commercial interest. This is a similar strategy used by Redhat (with Mobicents and possibly more of JBoss), and will the case with Nokia.

Does anyone else see what is happening here? Dual license is corporates taking advantage of the community effort for their own profit. Free software needs to be GPL and only GPL, or better yet, BSD, Apache, Mozilla, or Public.

It's all well and dandy for the Linux open GPL hackers, but meanwhile back in the corporate world...without a commercial license to the software, per GPL 3 companies can no longer have online services based on MySQL--say like the Google search engine--without yielding the source to these application under GPL3. This may cause problems for hosting providers and other application service providers now faces with the mandate to either buy commercial licenses, or inform customers users any given server that their online store or other company extranet software is now licensed under GPL, or a company like Verizon suddenly finds it has to pay, or all it's billing software and POS backbone is licensed as GPL. Per GPL3 any software that depends on MySQL must be GPL.

Our company has taken the position that we might as well buy Oracle or hack PostgreSQL. GPL of our internal billing software is just now an option. Though we do not distribute our software to customers, per GPL we would be required to make the source available or pay for commercial licenses for each CPU.

Acquisitions like Sun over MySQL and Nokia over Qt are detrimental to the open source community at large because the commercial use becomes impractical for anything closed source or proprietary unless you want to pay license cost--which usually is not possible for small start-up ISV. So contributers contribute code with any use of that code, Sun needs to be paid. In the free software world, if I had to invest my efforts I predict Apache and BSD style licenses gaining traction. They can not be bought at a later time once developed. For all those who contributed to MySQL at large, someone got rich off your efforts.

A question of culture

Glyn Moody's picture

Well, that's good news - I certainly hope you're right (but don't forget that shareholders might take a different view). And even assuming that Sun and the rest have the very best intentions, there's still the issue of how the open source culture will change, as I mentioned in the piece above. If practically *all* the main open source startups are acquired, how will the free software landscape look - and are there any downsides that we need to start preparing for?

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