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Some Unsolicited Advice for Jonathan Schwartz and our Friends at Sun

Posted by cdibona on June 1, 2004 at 10:47 AM PDT

In a recent article, Sun President Jonathan Schwartz stated that he saw Red Hat as being a proprietary company, more so than Sun. Specifically: "Availability of source code isn't what qualifies you as 'not proprietary'-Sun's definition of proprietary is behavior which defeats the customer's ability to compete vendors against one another, or choose from among many 'compatible' implementations."

Others have commented on the disingenuous nature of this statement, but instead of picking at that scab, I'd rather consider the motivation behind such a statement.

Why did he do this? A friend inside Sun has told me that when considered within the boundaries of the recent legal settlement, Microsoft isn't a good choice for being the enemy that Sun seems to feel it needs. For those unfamiliar with such tactics, companies often find it handy to motivate their people by focusing on an external "enemy". For many years, Microsoft has served as this foil for Sun, Oracle and any number of companies. The Linux developer community also indulges in this kind of motivation. (though not as often as you'd think)

However you feel about the enemy, such a thing is irrelevant, as when creating an enemy for the purposes of motivation, the actual truth of the enemies' motivations and execution is irrelevant or detrimental to the cause of demonification. Sun has real "enemies" (read: competitors) in the computer services and products business and to ignore them would be a big mistake, but over focusing on your competitors and not on your customers is a common flaw in the industry.

The real problem is that if you run a company that way, you need to find a competitor that closely matches your customer base, close enough that to compete with your enemy is to serve your customers. I can only imagine that is why Schwartz/McNealy chose Red Hat as the new enemy. If you buy that Sun needs an enemy, then Red Hat is as good a choice as any, and an easier one to attempt to demonize than IBM.

To choose Red Hat as the enemy is one thing, but to then go after Red Hat using patently false assertions is a very different thing altogether. If one is honest, one can see that Linux has taken an enormous chunk of business from Sun.

Sun can't slam Linux for a lot of reasons, mainly because they are a UNIX shop and to smear Linux would logically blow back in their faces. And yes, Solaris fans, I know what Solaris is good for and that, on the high end, it can do some very interesting things, but since the future of Sun lies at least partly in the Linux provisioning space, smearing Linux is bad strategy.

Since Sun isn't providing a decent Linux yet, what with JDS being in its infancy, it has to do what it can to retain clients until Sun is ready for them to switch. They could put more resources into a Linux program for Sun or they could spend considerably less on a program to plant seeds of doubt into its customer base about the suitability of Linux providers like Red Hat who are trying to convert establish Sun customers. One way to do this is to paint Red Hat as being just another proprietary offering.

This is patently stupid, for reasons I would like to touch on briefly: Binary or source, Red Hat has provided. If you want to build a Red Hat based distribution you can. At its core the software that Red Hat uses to create its distribution is available. The freedom to fork is there, the binaries are there, and the code is there, so they aren't proprietary. The key argument that Red Hat makes to the marketplace is this: "We are so good at what we do that, even given our set of tools, our competitors cannot serve you as well."

The only thing that is proprietary about Red Hat is what they choose to include in their distribution and who they choose to partner with. This last bit is what is likely sticking in Sun's craw. Red Hat is very selective about the partners they choose and in case you haven't noticed, they've done a very good job of enabling some key Sun competitors with some solid Linux solutions.

What can Sun do?

First, stop making up foolish accusations about how proprietary Red Hat is and instead attack them as an inferior provider of open source software based solutions and services. (Please don't read that as a judgment, I think Red Hat is doing a terrific job at that, but that's what Sun has to attack if they want to convert Red Hat customers to Sun). It just pisses people off.

Second, if Sun wants to make/retain pals with the open source community, stress the good work that Sun has done on truly open source software like Open Office instead of asserting Java and Solaris are "open enough".

Third, if you want some serious good vibes, Make Java and Solaris open.... Making Solaris open would be boon for Suns' hardware business.

Finally, and most important, be a better and more approachable partner than Red Hat. Then you can talk about how Red Hat is more "proprietary" than Sun is. But, if you are smart, you'll be talking about how Sun is better at serving its customers and not snipping at Red Hat.

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