Is the Linux community watching a setting Sun?
The title of this post was a headline that was probably written by an overly sensationalistic editor at http://www.searchenterpriselinux.com. The actual article, though, was written by Pam Derringer, was a pretty balanced piece (although it obviously could have been more in-depth; given length and time constraints, she talked to as many people as I think could have been expected, including a Sun spokeswoman, two analysts from different analyst companies, the chair of Apache Software Foundation, a Sun customer, and so on).
I’m not sure I’d agree with Jim Jagielski when he claims that Sun has the “best and brightest business people in the world,” though. As I said in the article, and as I’ve said before, I have nothing but the highest respect for many of Sun’s engineers, especially those who work on Solaris. But their business people? I’m not so sure they have the best and brightest… in fact, I think that’s one of Sun’s greatest problems right now. Compare that with the job that Mark Hurd has done with HP, or with the work done by the executives at my employer (IBM), and I’m not so sure a strong case can be made for the excellence of Sun’s business folk. (I mean, how many people still believe that the $2 billion dollars which Sun spent to acquire Cobalt Networks, or the $4 billion dollars which Sun spent to acquire StorageTek, or the $1 billion dollars which Sun spent MySQL, were all good ideas? Sun is currently valued by the market at $2.4 billion dollars!)
My bigger concern at the moment, however, is what happens if Sun gets purchased by a rival or by a corporate raider and gets broken up for parts? Since November 19th, when Sun’s stock price crashed through $3.27 (and has hit a low of $2.60 recently), it has been trading for less than its per-stock cash value. I say that not out of a sense of Schadenfreude, but out of concern about what happens if someone decides to buy the company, lay everyone off, and even after paying all of its debts, the resulting cash left over would be more than cost of completely buying the company — all of the real estate, the inventory, and the patent portfolio would all be pure profit.
It’s the last I’m most concerned about; Sun has a very large patent portfolio! What if it fell into the hands of a patent troll? What damage could be done to not just Linux and the OSS comunity, but the software industry as a whole? Suppose Sun really does have patents that read upon many of NetApp’s products? If those patents fall into the hands of a patent troll, NetApp would no longer be able to negotiate a peace settlement based on its patents (if they survive the on-going patent re-examination process) that read on ZFS, since the patent troll would no longer be making any products based on ZFS. Maybe somewhere in Sun’s patent portfolio, there are patents that read on the GNOME and KDE desktops, but since Sun is trying to ship those with its Project Indiana/Open Solaris dekstop, it’s not bothering to assert them at this time? What if a patent troll, perhaps one funded by Microsoft, gets their hands on those patents?
One final scary thought. Sun’s current market cap: $2.40 billion USD. Sun’s cash on hand: $2.63 billion USD. Microsoft’s current cash on hand: $19.71 billion USD. I can just imagine Steve Ballmer saying, “Chris, take it out of petty cash. I have an itsy-bitsy little acquistion I want to make…. Now I can embrace and extend Java all I want! And you know those term-limited, non-Open Source TCK licenses Sun gave to OpenJDK developers — not any more! They’re gone, within a year, the next time Red Hat needs to get the license renewed!”
Could it happen? What do you think?