There's Nothing New Under the Sun


One of the many sad aspects of Sun's disappearance into the maw of Oracle is that many will see this as “proof” that its strategy of building on open source was a failure. But as Simon Phipps, Sun's former Chief Open Source Officer, rightly says in his valedictory blog post:

Looking back, we’ve achieved some amazing things. We’ve:

Got some of the most important software in the computer industry released under Free licenses that guarantee software freedom for people who rely on them, regardless of who owns the copyrights. Unix, Java, key elements of Linux, the SPARC chip and much more have been liberated.

Guided and fed the quiet revolution that has restored competition to the productivity software market through Open Document Format.

One positive outcome of Oracle's takeover is that Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's erstwhile CEO and more than anyone the person who really placed open source at the heart of the company, is now free to tell his side of what is a pretty interesting story at his new blog, significantly entitled “What I Couldn't Say…"

His latest post is notable for a number of reasons, not least it's brilliant opening:

I feel for Google – Steve Jobs threatened to sue me, too.

In 2003, after I unveiled a prototype Linux desktop called Project Looking Glass*, Steve called my office to let me know the graphical effects were “stepping all over Apple’s IP.” (IP = Intellectual Property = patents, trademarks and copyrights.) If we moved forward to commercialize it, “I’ll just sue you.”

My response was simple. “Steve, I was just watching your last presentation, and Keynote looks identical to Concurrence – do you own that IP?” Concurrence was a presentation product built by Lighthouse Design, a company I’d help to found and which Sun acquired in 1996. Lighthouse built applications for NeXTSTEP, the Unix based operating system whose core would become the foundation for all Mac products after Apple acquired NeXT in 1996. Steve had used Concurrence for years, and as Apple built their own presentation tool, it was obvious where they’d found inspiration. “And last I checked, MacOS is now built on Unix. I think Sun has a few OS patents, too.” Steve was silent.

That's a great slap-down, but it gets better:

that interaction was good preparation for a later meeting with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. They’d flown in over a weekend to meet with Scott McNealy, Sun’s then CEO – who asked me and Greg Papadopoulos (Sun’s CTO) to accompany him. As we sat down in our Menlo Park conference room, Bill skipped the small talk, and went straight to the point, “Microsoft owns the office productivity market, and our patents read all over OpenOffice.”

But fearing this was on the agenda, we were prepared for the meeting. Microsoft is no stranger to imitating successful products, then leveraging their distribution power to eliminate a competitive threat – from tablet computing to search engines, their inspiration is often obvious (I’m trying to like Bing, I really am). So when they created their web application platform, .NET, it was obvious their designers had been staring at Java – which was exactly my retort. “We’ve looked at .NET, and you’re trampling all over a huge number of Java patents. So what will you pay us for every copy of Windows?” Bill explained the software business was all about building variable revenue streams from a fixed engineering cost base, so royalties didn’t fit with their model… which is to say, it was a short meeting.

I wish I had been a fly on the wall at that meeting...

Aside from the interesting point that Sun – and now Oracle – has a bunch of patents that can be used against Microsoft if the latter starts getting silly, there is an even more important issue here.

What Schwartz's wonderful anecdotes remind us is that every piece of software borrows from its predecessors, just as every artist learns from the artists that created before him or her. And that's to be expected, because software is a combination of art and science, and both gain much of their power by building on what went before, and then sharing that for others to build on in their turn, for the wider benefit of everyone.

The insane fad for trying to stop that sharing, and to turn those ideas into some mythical “intellectual property” is now reaching its inevitable conclusion, as patent thickets everywhere mean companies spend more and more time and money defending themselves against patent lawsuits, and less time getting on with their main business. There is only one solution: get rid of patents completely, and let the companies that innovate obtain their rewards from *using* that innovation to become leaders, not from trying to stop others from following belatedly in their footsteps.

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