I had the pleasure of speaking this week at the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco (my enigmatic slides are here, if you’re interested). The conference was well timed, set against the backdrop of Oracle’s audacious rollup of open source firms. Larry Ellison was The Man Who Wasn’t There. Oracle’s acquisitions, not surprisingly, are met with mixed emotions in the open source world, stirring excitement, foreboding and befuddlement. They appear at once to validate the robustness of the open source model and to call its future into question. Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL, the leading open source database company, had the funniest response to Ellison’s strategy. He said that Oracle was “trying to kill a dolphin by drinking the ocean.” (MySQL’s corporate emblem is a dolphin.) It was a good line, if not entirely convincing.
One of the main topics of conversation was whether open-source “communities” could survive in the clutches of a Big Software company like Oracle. The answers hinged on how people view the nature of those communities. Some believe they are essentially communitarian: what glues them together is a passion for big abstract concepts like “freedom” and a distrust of traditional software companies. They’re rooted in a shared ideology. Others believe that the communities are essentially utilitarian: what their members really want is good software cheap. They’re rooted in a shared business need.
I’m of the latter view. While open source may have had its origins in ideology, it’s now a pragmatic movement. The communities have left the commune. I think the success or failure of Oracle’s open source strategy will therefore turn not on how it treats communities as communities but on how it treats communities as customers. If it positions its open-source offerings as loss leaders, using them as lures to lock up customers and then pick their pockets, it may end up discovering that corporate software users aren’t as tractable as they once were. Another of Mickos’s comments at the conference, while not as witty as the dolphin crack, feels like a more accurate description of the risk Oracle is taking: “Their DNA is not one of commodity software, where prices are low and volumes are high. It’s about their culture and tradition. It’s a mindset question.”