So, what problem does open-source Java solve, and how does it solve it?
BEA, Apache and IBM love the idea of open-source Java. "Seems that everyone's in favor of open-sourcing someone else's technology," writes Mark Glaser, in a TechWeb editorial. But Sun raises legitimate reasons why things might be better for customers just as they are, most notably, that open-sourcing Java might allow other vendors to fragment the technology into multiple, incompatible versions.
What Sun isn't saying -- probably because they don't want to speak harshly of their new best pal -- is that "fragmentation" is, in this case, spelled M-I-C-R-O-S-O-F-T. Microsoft came out with its own, proprietary version of Java several years ago, which resulted in a lawsuit from Sun that was only recently settled. So there's precedent for Sun's fears of Java fragmentation; it's already happened.
Open-sourcing Solaris makes more sense. Sun is not primarily in the business of selling software, but rather, Sun sells packages of hardware, software and services for mission-critical, high-performance computing. Open-source Solaris would give Sun a community of developers who could help debug Solaris and sew up security holes, leaving Sun more free to focus engineering resources on adding new capabilities to its products.
Open Solaris source code would also allow Linux developers to plunder Solaris for high-end enterprise capabilities such as clustering and management utilities. Of course, making Linux stronger is a dangerous proposition for Sun, as Linux is a major competitor to Sun. On the other hand, if the transition from Unix to Linux is inevitable, Sun will benefit from trying to get ahead of that trend, rather than fighting it. And Sun has been a major contributor to the open-source community.
Many vendors have already opened the source code to their software. Niku Corp. joined the ranks recently with its Workbench project-scheduling software.
Open source is great, but it's not always the best technology licensing plan. Before changing proprietary technology to open source, vendors need to weigh the potential benefits and liabilities, both to themselves and their customers.