Will Oracle Leave Open Source Customers High And Dry?

Last Updated Apr 23, 2010 6:06 AM EDT

The Oracle (ORCL) acquisition of Sun Microsystems reminds me in a way of a second marriage. Oracle got the software it wanted, but also a bunch of open source step children. It's an awkward arrangement.

Open source is an important area in software development. The basic idea is compelling: People donate time to develop code, programs develop quickly with a broader array of expertise and talent than most companies could provide in-house, and there's often a great deal of freedom to adapt applications and tools for specific needs. Linux is probably the most famous example of a successful open source project.

However, even this early in Oracle-Sun marriage, there are signs that these open-source kids may not be welcome in the house of Larry Ellison. And that's a scary possibility to many companies and developers.

Oracle would likely say that it welcomes open source into the house. After all, that's part of how it cleared EU regulatory fears about the fate of MySQL, an open source database that competed with the company's database products in the small to mid-sized business market, and that Sun bought in 2008. However, since Oracle got the go ahead, there have been a number of disturbing signs:

  • MySQL developers are concerned because there will be "stronger corporate controls about what we can say" in terms of future product direction. Talk of focusing MySQL on Windows, rather than on the broader array of server operating systems for which it's not available, did nothing to calm worries.
  • Oracle has seemed ambivalent toward OpenSolaris, the free version of Sun's operating system Solaris. Also, a standalone version of Solaris, once available free from Sun, will turn into a 90-day trial.
  • James Gosling, known as the father of Java, was with Sun for a long time, but recently quit Oracle. He says that Java is still healthy, but Google disagrees. Many developers are fine with Oracle -- so far, but this is no love fest.
Oracle is in business to make money, and rightly so. However, the company made promises and has responsibility for a number of widely used open source products. The potential for a clash is significant, and the concerns about Oracle offer a lesson: Corporate management that depends on open source as a free alternative to traditional commercial products have to stay realistic. Not everyone has open-source "religion," and in a world of mergers and acquisitions, there's no telling who might end up owning the software you depend upon.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.