Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sun bureaucracy rejects alien beings

My friend Matt Asay is reporting that MySQL CEO Maren Mickos is bailing from Sun Microsystems, a year after Sun paid $1 billion for the open source database company. This follows by four months the exit by one of the MySQL founders, and a goodwill writedown of sizable fraction of the purchase price. The other cofounder left last week.

Asay blames the departure on Sun bureaucracy

What Mickos doesn't say in the staff letter, but which I sensed in my conversation with him, is frustration at Sun's bureaucracy. As one of the most foundational personalities in open-source business, Mickos should have been given free rein to change Sun's fortunes. I don't think that he was given that freedom, based on other conversations I've had with Sun executives, and this clearly led to his desire to leave Sun.
There is no doubt that the Sun bureaucracy has been strangling the company since the end of the dot-com bubble, when it was perhaps hidden by Sun’s wild ride. While Asay refers to Mickos (who I met a few times) “the face of MySQL, but also of the rising open-source industry,” it’s clear that Mickos was never going to pull off a reverse takeover the way Steve Jobs did in 1997.

But I’d argue with Asay’s basic premise: Sun’s “open-source rebirth was just given a massive blow.” There was no rebirth and never would be. Exhibit A is Matt himself, who I met when he was the open source strategist for Novell. Novell did an exemplary job of acquiring Ximian and one of the open source industry’s superstars, founder Miguel de Icaza, and he still appears to be a Novell VP.

Linux revenues (from its SuSE acquisition) have grown to 16% of the company’s total in 2008. However, Novell hasn’t had a decent year since 2004, losing money in 2008, 2007, and 2005 (if you exclude the Microsoft settlement), and eking out a 2% profit in 2006 that was lost again in 2007.

If this is the best job of any incumbent in making the switch to open source, what hope did Sun have? (IBM is the exception that proved the rule: they had a senior exec who led a cultural shift nearly a decade ago).

So Sun may find its way out of the wilderness — even if the odds seem long. But MySQL isn’t going to do it, and I don’t think open source will either. Perhaps Sun’s future lies not in showing everyone it does commodity systems better than Dell, IBM or HP, but instead giving CIOs a reason again to pay a premium for its products. Apple’s done it in the consumer space, so perhaps Sun can pull it off for mission-critical enterprise IT.

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