Monday, March 19, 2007

Sun’s Rebound Continues

Back in 2001-2002 when I was researching my second open source article — eventually published in 2003 in Research Policy — I ended up studying three companies: Apple, IBM and Sun. I guess the editors of the special issue liked it because it was one of the first academic articles to treat open source as a corporate strategy rather than merely a way of collaborating to produce technology.

The Apple and IBM strategies were relatively straightforward. Not surprisingly, Apple was selectively open — what I called back then “opening parts.” And, as will be familiar to anyone today, IBM is cross-subsidizing “free” (whatever that means) software with expensive hardware and services.

I never quite got Sun. On the one hand, they had claimed to be about “open standards” for decades, and had promulgated a few pieces of code (like NFS) for the rest of the world to enjoy. On the other hand, they had been at the center of the Unix wars and (like all the other Unix vendors) wanted a few little switching costs to make it more likely enterprise customers would stay with them. So when it came to open source, Sun’s strategy 5 years ago had an element of ambivalence to it. Meanwhile, in the post-bubble era IT managers who preferred Sun’s elegant systems went out and bought Lintel boxes because they were good enough.

Under Jonathan Schwartz, the company has been more aggressively open in its IT strategies — which is risky, but it was clear the old cautious approach to wrenching industry change was on a terminal glide slope. They started the process of open sourcing Solaris in 2004 — nearly 5 years later than when it would have really mattered, but still a positive step to deal with the flood of industry change.

Today, Ian Murdock joined Sun Microsystems to, as he says, both help it respond to Linux and also to work more closely with it. He is the “ian” in Debian, former CTO of the Linux Foundation (née Free Standards Group) and apparently a longtime Unix fanatic and Sun fan. While it’s initially impossible to distinguish a symbolic hire from a substantive one, Sun’s ability to attract Murdock and its (presumed) willingness to listen to his ideas is a positive sign for a company that several years many gave up for dead. Perhaps they’ll enjoy an Apple-like revival.

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