Quite the firestorm
August 15, 2010
The last couple of days have been quite an entertaining firestorm of press and
blog-o-sphere commentary. Lots of questions were brought up that give me a bottomless
supply of blog topics. I hope I have the common sense to not write on most of them
But there are some topics I feel I should briefly say something about:
It's tough living in a world of Borg-wanna-be's.
- In Sun's early history, we didn't think much of patents. While there's a
kernel of good sense in the reasoning for patents, the system itself has gotten
goofy. Sun didn't file many patents initially. But then we got sued by IBM for
violating the "RISC patent" - a patent that essentially said "if you make something
simpler, it'll go faster". Seemed like a blindingly obvious notion that shouldn't
have been patentable, but we got sued, and lost. The penalty was huge.
Nearly put us out of business. We survived, but to help protect us from future
suits we went on a patenting binge. Even though we had a basic distaste for
patents, the game is what it is, and patents are essential in modern corporations,
if only as a defensive measure. There was even an unofficial competition to
see who could get the goofiest patent through the system. My entry [ http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO2&Sect2=HITOFF&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsearch-bool.html&r=44&f=G&l=50&co1=AND&d=PTXT&s1=%22gosling,+james%22.INNM.&OS=IN/%22gosling,+james%22&RS=IN/%22gosling,+james%22
] wasn't nearly the goofiest.
- Sun got a lot of heat for not going full open source early on (and there's
a lot of disagreement over what "full open source" would mean... GPL? Apache?).
But freedom is a funny concept. It's often a function of point of view: freedom
for one could restrict the freedom of another. The freedom we were most concerned
about was the freedom of software developers to run their applications on whatever
OS or hardware they wanted. In opposition to that, the platform providers wanted
the freedom to make their platforms as sticky as possible. Microsoft was the
poster child for stickiness: they signed a contract saying that they'd support
interoperability. Shortly thereafter they broke that promise by making it the
case that if Java programs were developed on Windows, they wouldn't run anywhere
else, so we took them to court and won. We were pretty careful about enforcing
interoperability on desktops and servers. As an interesting aside, that commitment
to interoperability is why Apple dislikes Java. Having OS X apps run on Linux
or Windows doesn't make them happy. Apple wants to add your technological distinctiveness
to their own [ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117731/quotes?qt0455855 ].
When it came to cellphones and JavaME, we weren't as able and successful
at achieving interoperability. There were a lot of factors, but it all added
up to pain for developers and a chilling of the software market. When Google
came to us with their thoughts on cellphones, one of their core principles was
making the platform free to handset providers. They had very weak notions of
interoperability, which, given our history, we strongly objected to. Android
has pretty much played out the way that we feared: there is enough fragmentation
among Android handsets to significantly restrict the freedom of software developers.
- Money was, of course, also an issue between Sun and Google. We wanted some
compensation for the large amount we would be spending on engineering. Google
did have a financial model that benefited themselves (that they weren't about
to share). They were partly planning on revenue from advertising, but mostly
they wanted to disrupt Apple's trajectory, and Apple's expected entry into advertising.
If mobile devices take over as the computing platform for consumers, then Google's
advertising channel, and the heart of its revenue, gets gutted. It doesn't take
much of a crystal ball to see where Apple is going, and it's not a pretty picture
for Google or anyone else.
- Don't interpret any of my comments as support for Oracle's suit. There are
no guiltless parties with white hats in this little drama. This skirmish isn't
much about patents or principles or programming languages. The suit is far more
about ego, money and power.
- It's a sad comment on the morality of large modern software companies that
Microsoft, while I don't think they've gotten any better since Sun sued them,
probably has the high ground.