Has MySQL Forgotten All It Learnt?


A couple of years ago, I interviewed Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL. He had some interesting things to say about licensing:

GM: Why did the company decide to adopt the GNU GPL in 2000?

MM: Initially, they had another dual licence that said it's free on Linux but you pay on Unix and Windows. And at some point they realised to get included in the Linux distros you needed a licence that people could readily accept. People had nothing against the MySQL licence, but it took time for them to read through it and accept it. And they argued that if they would adopt the GPL then there would be no questions asked.

When they made the decision monthly sales fell to 20% of what it had been. So it was a huge risk financially for them - they had no financial backers, no VCs. There was a half year of slower sales and then they were back on track.

GM: You still have a commercial licence alongside the GNU GPL: for what reasons do people choose the commercial licence?

MM: The interesting thing is that we are known for the dual licensing model, and as pioneers of it, but today our main business is not on dual licensing, because we are now becoming a major player in the enterprise market and with Web sites, and they don't buy commercial licences from us, they buy subscriptions.

GM: You mean the use the GNU GPL licence and pay for support?

MM: Yes. So dual licensing was a good starting model for us and it works well in the OEM space, where somebody OEMs the code from us, and puts it into their own products that they ship to customers. And that's where it works very well. But if you look at our most famous customers, like Google and Yahoo, Travelocity and Craigslist, they do not use our commercial licence.

That seems pretty clear: dual licensing – with open source and commercial versions – makes sense for OEMs, or for startups. So how do we square that with this news?

Officials at Sun Microsystems, which acquired MySQL in February, confirmed that new online backup capabilities now under development will be offered only to MySQL Enterprise customers -- not to the much larger number of users of the free MySQL Community edition.


This is the second dust-up between MySQL and its users in the past eight months. Last August, an earlier decision to stop making the MySQL Enterprise source code openly available to users without paid subscriptions drew criticism from some members of the MySQL community.

This doesn't seem to be about OEMs, but about trying to add a proprietary topping to the open source version – effectively downgrading the latter. The business logic might seem clear, but it is a slippery slope that MySQL is descending – one that it managed to ascend all those years ago, even though it meant a 20% drop in sales at the time.

The problem is twofold. One, is that it goes against everything Mickos has been saying for the last few years. As the same Computerworld article cited above notes:

Cheerfully acknowledging in an interview with Computerworld last year that only one in a thousand MySQL users paid for the software, then-CEO Marten Mickos said that the company had no plans to make some of its products and source code proprietary.

"We've had that debate many times," said Mickos, who now is senior vice president of Sun's database group. "I think we might win a few new customers, but we would lose 2 million users. We're not ready for that kind of compromise."

That U-turn is bad enough, but worse is that it seems to disregard the fundamental dynamics of open source. If you don't let users try out features and see the code, guess what? They don't improve it. The logical conclusion of this process is something like Vista – a bloated, unusable mess.

Is this really the route that MySQL wants to take? If it is, then I think it is in for a rude surprise. The passion that hitherto has driven the MySQL community is not something that can be taken for granted. Tinker with the dynamics of participation, and you will find that people transfer their allegiance pretty fast.

Of course, MySQL is not the only open source company that is flirting with new business models that include proprietary elements. Indeed, I think we are entering a critical period where the limits of this kind of thing will be explored – sometime with dire consequences for those who cross the line (hello, Novell). But that does not justify these kinds of actions. As Jamie Zawinski once memorably wrote:

Open source does work, but it is most definitely not a panacea. If there's a cautionary tale here, it is that you can't take a dying project, sprinkle it with the magic pixie dust of “open source,' and have everything magically work out. Software is hard. The issues aren't that simple.

It's the same for software companies. You can't take a dying business model, sprinkle it with the magic pixie dust of “open source” and have everything magically work out in the market. Selling software is hard. The issues aren't that simple. Let's hope Marten Mickos realises this before his unexpected “compromise” does indeed start to lose him large numbers of users.

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