Sun Fell Prey to Open-Washing. Who's Next? Microsoft?

Last Updated Mar 2, 2010 4:53 PM EST

Jeremy Allison, currently a lead developer on Samba at Google (GOOG) had an interesting former-insider's view of why Sun failed. Aside from the most obvious -- bad management and custom semiconductors that fell behind competition -- he said the biggest flaw was the company's insistence on proprietary software and licensing. And yet, Sun often played the open system card, claiming to be a big contributor. However, the problem Sun faced is one that we might call openwashing, and it's staring down other companies like Microsoft (MSFT) as well.

Openwashing is similar to greenwashing, in which a company markets itself as environmentally friendly but is actually faking it. A high tech firm openwashes itself when it makes noises about open software but is really interested in preserving its proprietary offerings and hampering free open systems practices.

It's not to say that proprietary can't work. Apple (AAPL) has a robust business model based on strict control over its products. But the company chooses its niches well and has been able to maintain a closed system. Most tech firms don't insist on sticking to their knitting, particularly among those that sell to IT departments. "Open" has become as big a buzzword as any -- a marketing term used to lower the defenses of buyers.

Sun was no stranger to donning the open mantle, as former CEO Scott McNealy said as early as 2003:

"We're the largest contributor to open-source on the planet, other than the University of California at Berkeley," McNealy said. "We are leveraging mankind more than any other company out there, whether it be through a browser or user interface or kernel or directory or app server or Web server."
Over time, the claims only became stronger. But as Allison pointed out, there's a difference between contributing and collaborating:
The Solaris operating system, the Java language and virtual machine, the OpenOffice office suite -- all of the really large software projects that Sun released -- had strings attached that stopped any real external community from forming around the code. Usually it was the demand that any code contributions be contributed directly to Sun for their own use in proprietary products that was the major failing of all the Sun "community" projects. Poor licensing choices, demands for ownership of all contributors work, ignoring contributors outside of Sun, all of these can be blamed for Sun's inability to maintain active coding communities around their Open Source code, but in the end it comes down to the desire to maintain control and ownership of the code at all costs. People are smart enough to understand when they're being taken advantage of, especially programmers.
People who have to make systems work together for a living are interested in functions that work and a way to address the issues they have. Open source does that. Proprietary software? Not so much. It may work, but only the way 80 percent of its customers want, unless you're ready to pony up for customization. And if it doesn't work, your support options are limited. What do you do? Wait a few years until Vista passes and Windows 7 appears? Some companies tout "open standards" and "interoperability." Microsoft decided to charm open source developers by letting them use the company's protocols and not suing them -- if the developers' work was non-commercial.

Microsoft isn't the only one trying to talk a good game by making nice with open source. HP (HPQ) talks about its extensive open source work. IBM (IBM), Dell (DELL), Oracle (ORCL), and SAP all talk about working with open source software. The real measure will be how freely and often the contribute back to the pool of code. Treat the developers wrong, and they might find themselves moving on, just as Sun did.

Component images: Flickr users Carl Johan and Neosnaps, CC 2.0.

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.