Oracle/Google: the strategy behind Sun, Oracle and the OSS implications

In my previous post, I tried to provide some details on what in my opinion were the most relevant legal and licensing aspects of the recently launched Oracle lawsuit against Google. I would like now to provide some perspective on what may have been the motives behind this lawsuit, and what are the possible implications for the Java and Open Source communities.

First of all, it is clear that, as I mentioned before, Google turned the lawsuit into a positive event for their (slightly battered) public image. By turning the lawsuit against Android into an attack to the open source community, Google effectively created a positive image, as David unjustly accused by the Oracle giant. It is also clear that the lawsuit itself is actually quite weak, focusing on a copyright claim that is very vague (given the fact that Google never claimed to use Java), and a set of patent claims for techniques that are probably not relevant anymore (especially in the post-Bilski era). One of the possible reasons for this is to be sure that even the widely different Dalvik machine would be at least partially covered; the other is the fact that all of Classpath was included in the OIN “System Components” covered technologies. Since both Oracle and Google are part of OIN, I suspect that Oracle wanted to avoid any potential complication coming from this “broken marriage”.

But – this is not the only relevant aspect. Actually, an angle that is probably more important is the impact of the lawsuit on Java, Java for mobile, Android and the OSS communities that were part of the Sun technology landscape.

Enterprise Java: no change at all. Java is a very strong brand among corporate developers, and I doubt that the lawsuit will change anything at all; in fact, all the various licensee of the Java full specification are on perfectly legal grounds, and face no problem at all. Despite the opportunistic claims by Miguel De Icaza (that suggests that Mono/C# would have been a better choice), there is nothing in the lawsuit that would imply that other Java or Java-related technologies may be impacted (actually, Mono and the CLR are in the same situation as Dalvik, actually).

Mobile Java: as I mentioned before, the lawsuit put the last stone on the JavaME grave. The only potentially relevant route away from the land of the dead could have been JavaFX; that was too little, too late – incomplete, missing several pieces, missing a roadmap, and uselessly released as a binary-only project. Android  used the Java language, extended it with mobile-specific classes that were more modern and more useful for recent smartphones and even non-phone applications (like entertainment devices, automotive and navigation devices). It is not a surprise, that coupled with the Google brand name, Android surged in popularity so much as to become a threat.

Oracle OSS projects: Oracle has always been an opportunistic user of open source. With the term “opportunistic” I am not implying any negative connotation: simply the observation that Oracle dabbled in open source whenever there was an opportunity to reduce its own research and development costs. If you look at oracle projects, it is clear that all projects are related to infrastructural functionality for the Oracle run-time and for developers tools (using Eclipse as a basis). I was not able to find any “intrinsic” open source project started or adopted by Oracle that was not focused on this approach. So, for those projects, I believe that there will be no difference; for example, I believe that the activity on the Oracle-sponsored BTRFS project will not change significantly. Oracle, actually does not care at all if they are seen as “enemies”, or if their projects are not used anymore by others. What they care for is for their patches to be included in Linux. Remember that Oracle is an “old style” company; it does have two basic product lines: its database and its set of enterprise applications. Everything else is not quite necessary, and probably will be abandoned.

Sun OSS projects: as for Sun, there is a long preamble first. Sun has always been, first and foremost, an engineering company – something like Silicon Graphics in the past, or more recently Google. Sun had open sourced something of value whenever it was necessary to establish a common platform or protocol, like NFS or NIS+; but it was the advent of Jonathan Schwartz that actually turned things towards open source. The ponytailed CEO tried to turn the Sun behemoth towards a fully open strategy, but was unable to manage the conversion before being ousted out. It is a pity, actually – Sun could have leveraged its size, large number of technical partners and amount of technologies to become a platform provider like RedHat – but 10 times larger. The problem of this strategy is that it implies a large amount of cooperative development, and thus a substantial downsizing of the company itself. The alternative could have been the use of an open-core like strategy, for example creating a scalable JVM designed to auto-partition code execution on network of computers. The basic JVM could have been dual licensed, with the enhanced one released on a proprietary basis; this could have leveraged the exceptional Sun expertise in grid and parallel computing, filesystems and introspection systems.

But Sun never managed to complete the path – it dwindled left and right, with lots of subprojects that were started and abandoned. The embracing of PostgreSQL, its later abandonment, the latter embrace of MySQL, that was then not integrated anywhere; the creation of substantial OSS projects from their proprietary offering, but then losing interest as soon as a project started to become a threat for the proprietary edition. There is no surprise that despite the incredible potential, Sun never recouped much of their OSS investment (despite the great growth in their latest quarters, the OSS services remained a small portion of their revenues). Now that Oracle has taken control, I believe that Sun “openness” will quickly fade towards small, utilitarian projects – so, even if now everyone looks at Oracle with anger, noone at Oracle could care less.

Why oracle sued? The blogosphere is exploding with possible answers; my own two hypothesis are:

  • Oracle found a substantial technology it acquired (Java) losing value in what is the hottest tech market today, namely mobile systems. Sun had no credible plan to update JavaME, no credible alternative, and thus Android (that is loosely java based) is at the same time a threat to an acquired asset and (from their point of view) a stolen technology. Since anyone can follow the same path, Oracle wants to make sure that noone else would try to leverage Java to create an unlicensed (and uncontrolled) copy.
  • Oracle wants a piece of the mobile enterprise market, and the alternatives are unavailable (Apple does not want anything to do with Java, Blackberry is a JavaME licensee, Windows Mobile is backed by arch-rival Microsoft). Android is working well, grows incredibly fast, and Oracle wants a piece of it; Google probably rebuffed initial contacts, and now Oracle is showing the guns to make Google obey. I am skeptical, however, that Google would back down on what is becoming its most important growth path. The lawsuit itself is quite weak, and Google would risk too much by licensing the TCK from Oracle; they would basically destroy their opportunity for independent development. It is never a good idea to corner someone – if you leave no alternative, fight is the only answer.

I believe that the first one is the most probable one; Larry Ellison should know that cornering Google would not be sufficient to make them capitulate – they have too much to lose. But this will not be sufficient to create an opportunity for Oracle; I believe that the lawsuit will actually bring nothing to Oracle, and lots of advantages to Google. But only time will tell; the only thing that I can predict for sure right now is that Solaris will quickly fade from sight (as it will be unable to grow at the same rate of Linux) exactly like AIX and HP-UX: a mature and backroom tech, but nothing that you can base a growth strategy upon.


  1. #1 by ExJava - August 16th, 2010 at 20:28

    Android is essentially a rewrite of Java. After Google refused to sign a contract with Sun to License Java (essentially pay the $10 million “marketing fee”) they took it upon themselves to rewite java from the ground up. So even though it looks like Java and runs like Java it cannot be called “Java compatible” because Google doesn’t have the license.

    So Oracle has to prove that Google copies Java which will just enrich lawyers with untold hours of cour time. However, I would guess that this will end up settled out of court with some kind of payment or one of these “cross licensing” deals.

  2. #2 by Me, myself and I - August 28th, 2010 at 01:26

    Look up SAS vs. WPS. Essentially, the case’s conclusion is that there is no way a company can claim patent rights and copyright on a computer language. Sun’s licenses and patents are about the Java platform and its sources – the JVM, tools, documentation and whatnot. Google has not taken a bit of these. It just developed a translator, which runs on a perfectly compliant Sun Java platform, and generates something that runs on Dalvik.

    Unless Oracle can produce source code taken from Dalvik which is similar to source code taken from Sun’s JVM, and not generic, i.e. code which can be found in tons of other programs, IMO it has no case on copyright infringement.

    Other than that, I have looked at the patents. I think Google will have no problem at all providing evidence of prior art, and invalidating the patents in a very short time, leaving Oracle with no case at all.

    Besides, Google has no other choice than to find. If it gave t he slightest sign of wanting to settle, this would be a strong message to Android developers and licensees worldwide (mostly phone and gadget makers) that the platform is risky to use.

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