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18 Dec 2009

MySQL founder Michael Widenius concerned about sale to Oracle

In case you haven’t heard, Sun is being bought by Oracle. After dancing around the issue in blog posts over the past 8 months, MySQL developer-founder Michael “Monty” Widenius finally comes out and adamantly opposes MySQL’s role in the sale.

In a Dec. 12 blog post, Widenius tries to rally open source MySQL supporters in an effort to seek assurances from Oracle that the project will, in fact, stay open source. He makes a good case for a future Oracle decision to limit or close off the open source elements:

Oracle [has] to lower prices all the time to compete with MySQL when companies start new projects. Some companies even migrate existing projects from Oracle to MySQL to save money. Of course Oracle has a lot more features, but MySQL can already do a lot of things for which Oracle is often used...So I just don't buy it that Oracle will be a good home for MySQL. A weak MySQL is worth about one billion dollars per year to Oracle, maybe more. A strong MySQL could never generate enough income for Oracle that they would want to cannibalize their real cash cow.
Anyone who's loosely familiar with open source software knows that the community can execute the almighty fork, just pick up the code and go. But Widenius believes the code is only a portion of the equation, and that the economy around MySQL is vastly more important. Richard Stallman penned a letter in conjunction with Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) and the Open Rights Group (ORG) that succinctly describes the issue:

MySQL is made available to the public in two parallel ways. Most users obtain it as free/libre software under the GNU General Public License (GPL) version 2; the code is released in this way gratis. MySQL is also available under a different, proprietary license for a fee.

This approach was able to provide (1) an attractive platform for developers looking to use FLOSS, and secured MySQL enormous mind share, particularly in supporting content rich web pages and other Internet applications, and (2) the ability for paying clientèle to combine and distribute MySQL in customizations that they do not want to make available to the public as free/libre software under the GPL. With excellent management and considerable trust within the user community, MySQL became the gold standard for web based FLOSS database applications.

Bolding my emphasis, which is the key here. Most MySQL users don’t need licenses, for two reasons. First, other OSS projects naturally play very nicely with MySQL’s matching open source license. Second, websites that use proprietary code in conjunction with MySQL are clear because nothing is actually distributed, users simply visit a site. My company Fwd:Vault is a perfect example.

The remaining clients, who write software that gets distributed (think boxed software in a store), must utilize MySQL’s second, fee-based proprietary license. This is where the money is, and is the true engine that has powered MySQL’s rise over the last 20 years.

As any business owner can tell you, replicating a strong consumer base and community climate is nearly impossible. “If it would be easy to take over MySQL by just forking it,” says Widenius, “Sun would never have bought MySQL and Oracle would have forked MySQL a long time ago instead of now trying to buy it as part of the SUN deal.”

Now this whole system get’s handed to Oracle, who has a directly competing product and feels major price pressure due to MySQL’s free offering. I agree with Widenius on the eventual outcome, but he doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on here. He sold MySQL AB to Sun, and they can do whatever they want with it. If Sun gets swallowed by Oracle, MySQL goes alogn with it. That’s how businesses work. He can argue all day that the Sun deal was predicated on their track record for positively supporting FLOSS projects, but his control over MySQL’s future was out the door the moment the Sun deal was closed.

I’m a huge OSS proponent, but I’m a capitalist first. If the EC doesn’t find the sale to be monopolistic — keep in mind the USDOJ already approved the deal — then I wish Oracle the best of luck with their new purchase.

That being said, capitalism favors the huge MySQL install base in the longer term. If Oracle removes MySQL “the open source database” from the OSS environment, they’re going to leave a massive hole in the market, a hole that cannot be filled with Oracle’s overpriced high-end database software. A new product will rise to fill the void. Maybe it will be a MySQL fork, maybe it will be something new, but it will happen. MySQL did it once, why can’t someone else do it again?

And when you acknowledge the likelihood of that potential outcome, it makes Widenius’ entire protest seem self-interested. He’s not necessarily concerned with the open source database community, but his position within it. I have no doubt that his intentions are at least in part altruistic — replacing MySQL would be a torturous process — but I’m sure he’d rather see his baby leading the pack than some neophyte.

In short, if he’s just trying to protect his turf, is his mindset really any different from Oracle?

For me, the entire issue is summarized in the introduction of his protest post, “I have spent the last 27 years creating and working on MySQL and I hope, together with my team of MySQL core developers, to work on it for many more years.”

If that was the case, you shouldn’t have sold it off in the first place.

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