Sound and fury signifying what, exactly?
About a month ago, Oracle Corporation announced that it had acquired Innobase, a tiny Scandinavian technology company, for an undisclosed sum. Oracle has lately been on an acquisition tear, so a small buy like Innobase would have passed unnoticed were it not for the fact that MySQL, a strong emerging competitor to Oracle, used Innobase technology in one of its products.
Discussion of the move swamped the mailboxes of open source execs and the commentary on Slashdot. Oracle had moved against open source competition! There was all kinds of speculation on what would happen next, but the smart money was betting we'd hear more from Redwood Shores.
On Friday, Oracle made another announcement, aimed expressly and unapologetically at MySQL: Oracle plans to release a version of its database, to be called Oracle 10g Express, at no charge, for low-end use. Andrew Mendelsohn of Oracle mentions MySQL by name in explaining the company's decision to release the new product.
What does this announcement mean? Has Oracle finally figured out open source software?
There's no question that the Innobase buy was an entertaining and well-played move by Oracle. The news broke simultaneously with a new product announcement by MySQL, distracting press and customers for a couple of weeks. Oracle has gained some influence -- though not, in fact, control -- over a small piece of technology that MySQL uses in its current software release. Instead of simply continuing to use that technology, MySQL must now consider whether it should replace it, offer alternatives to it, or continue to work with its new partner and long-time competitor.
None of that has anything to do with open source at Oracle, though. Note that there is no credible announced plan to continue to develop the Innobase technology as open source software. It's not that Oracle has said it won't do that; it's that open source, as a development and distribution strategy, isn't even among the talking points at Oracle. Mendelsohn has said only that the Innobase technology might be used in future Oracle products. That's an awfully faint endorsement of the team and technology.
What, then, of Oracle 10g Express?
As is true for any preannounced product, it's impossible to say for sure what this is, or what it means. Since no real product is available for customers to evaluate and use, we should assume that this announcement is intended to confuse MySQL's customers, and not to inform Oracle's.
Nevertheless, here's what I think is happening.
Oracle has had a product called Oracle Lite on its price list for a long time. This software, originally developed as a desktop database, has never gotten any serious attention from customers. If Oracle's field sales team hasn't been able to move it, you can bet that it's very hard to sell.
I predict that Oracle 10g Express is a rebranded release of Oracle Lite. Oracle is making a virtue of necessity. Since it makes no money from this low-end product anyway, it may as well give it away for free. In the worst case, nothing is lost. In the best case, Oracle slows adoption of competing open source products like MySQL and EnterpriseDB.
Don't confuse the announced 10g Express product with Oracle's existing Oracle Express Server product line. The existing product is a data warehousing and mining package for Oracle's biggest customers. The new announcement has nothing to do with it.
Oracle's positioning of 10g Express reinforces my conviction. Instead of talking about enterprise adoption, where open source databases are growing most quickly, Oracle focuses on student projects and low-end users. The database is limited in the amount of data that it will store, and in other ways. This is all consistent with the Lite product, but not with Oracle's workhorse enterprise offerings, which are much too valuable to the company to give away for free.
Once again, I'm impressed by the move. It costs Oracle very little, attracts a great deal of attention, and forces competitors to respond, at least in the press. In the long term, though, it's not going to work.
Oracle is confusing free beer with free speech. The success of open source software is only loosely tied to its zero-dollar price tag. In fact, most of us in open source realize that a realistic accounting of software cost has to include the expense of ongoing maintenance. Just because a product is free to download doesn't mean that it is free to use and manage.
What really drives adoption of successful open source is the size and enthusiasm of the community surrounding the software. Products like Berkeley DB, MySQL and PostgreSQL are successful primarily because of the vibrant developer communities that adopt, support, extend and evangelize them.
The market hasn't ignored Oracle Lite because of its price tag. A few hundred dollars is't enough to make a difference, even to most individuals. Two things matter: quality, where past adoption is a meaningful metric, and the size and activity of the global development community that uses the product.
Oracle needs such a community around its products if it is to compete with open source products. The way to build that community is to release the complete source code of a powerful and useful product, so that smart software developers around the world can learn how it works and make improvements to it.
Even then, building a community is a tremendous challenge. Computer Associates' attempts to build community around the old Ingres software have largely failed. Long-term successful vendors of proprietary software have been closed and exclusionary for years. Opening their development and strategic teams, and taking advantage of the power and intelligence of the global Internet community, is very hard.
So what does this sound and fury signify?
Clearly, Oracle has joined IBM, Sun, Microsoft and others in paying real attention to open source software. We'll certainly hear more from Redwood Shores in the months to come. Fundamentally, though, neither of these developments suggests that Oracle understands open source. It's looking for ways to beat open source. That's not going to work.