Just under three years ago, I interviewed Marten Mickos, at that time CEO of MySQL. I was very impressed both by his frankness and the depth of his understanding of the free software world. At that time, it was rare to find a CEO who believed in this stuff – and still is – but Mickos was clearly not just going through the motions to keep journalists happy.
Since then, a lot has happened. MySQL was bought by Sun for $1 billion, and Sun is now in the process of being bought by Oracle. Or maybe not: the European Commission is concerned about the concentration of power this would bring about in uniting MySQL with the Oracle database family.
At first sight, that's an entirely reasonable fear. If MySQL were any old database, putting it in the same camp as the market leader would certainly give pause for thought. But MySQL is not any old database: it's a free software one, released under the GNU GPL. This changes the dynamics considerably, as this fascinating letter from Mickos to the European Commissioner Neelie Kroes eloquently explains.
As Mickos writes, it's all about the community:
In this discussion, the term "MySQL" refers to two things. On the one hand, there is the huge phenomenon MySQL--an estimated 12 million active installations under a free and open-source software license, millions, if not tens of millions, of skilled users and developers, and tens of thousands of corporations who use MySQL one way or the other.
On the other hand, there is the business of MySQL, which is growing rapidly, thus rewarding the owners of the assets (currently Sun Microsystems).
Those two meanings of the term "MySQL" stand in a close mutually beneficial interaction with each other. But most importantly, this interaction is voluntary and cannot be directly controlled by the vendor.
The reason MySQL the community is independent of MySQL the business is as follows:
Most of the users operate without commercial support from any vendor (many of them don't even realize that MySQL also is a commercial business owned and operated by Sun). If they need support, there are many alternative vendors. If they so choose, they can run on a different variation (fork) of MySQL. If they feel a need to migrate away from MySQL, there are other databases available (both open and closed source). This group cannot be locked into a specific vendor.
Mickos also addresses the situation where Oracle decides to play nasty with MySQL; again, for the MySQL community, Oracle's actions are largely irrelevant:
These users don't care who owns MySQL and what the commercial offerings cost because they don't buy them. They only care about the ongoing development and bug fixing of the product. If Oracle stopped developing MySQL, the defined and prescribed response in any open-source setting is forking. If a product is not evolving at the speed reasonably expected by a main portion of the user base, a fork will emerge.
Indeed, in the MySQL ecosystem, there are already a number of forks. Each one of those forks may perhaps currently be individually weak and unpromising. But the reality remains that if the main steward of an open-source product fails to live up to reasonable expectations, the forces of open source will take over.
It's not quite that simple, in that MySQL owns all the copyright in the code, which means that forks are more limited in what they can offer in terms of products. But in the main, it's true: with GPL'd software, users always have the option of empowering any forks that are available. And if the main vendor fails to deliver, such forks have a habit of springing up.
Finally, Mickos has some interesting thoughts on a possible knock-on consequence for the open source community if the European Commission blocks the Oracle deal:
I believe that Oracle's acquisition of Sun (and MySQL) will increase competition in the database market. And I also believe that if, on the other hand, it becomes difficult or impossible for large companies to acquire open-source assets, then venture investments in open-source companies will slow down, harming the evolution of and innovation in open source, which would result in decreased competition.
Now, it's arguable to what extent free software *needs* such venture capital investment, but there's no denying that the more money, and the more interest there is in the open source sector, the higher its profile will be, and that can only be to the good. And in this case, there's really no reason to block the acquisition of “open source assets”: as Mickos points out, the European Commission can always depend on the mighty MySQL nation – the many millions of them – to keep Oracle honest.