Sun signals a new day for open source

Tim Bray, co-creator of XML and director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems, talks to InfoWorld Senior Editor Neil McAllister about Sun's efforts to open its code

Tim Bray, co-creator of XML and director of web technologies at Sun Microsystems, talks to InfoWorld Senior Editor Neil McAllister about Sun’s efforts to open its code.

InfoWorld: What’s behind Sun’s recent emphasis on open source?

Tim Bray: I think the whole notion is centered around Sun’s belief that, to use an old, old metaphor, the rising tide floats all boats. The notion that software is a big, expensive, closed black box -- that if you want to use it, you have to write a big check and get it delivered and installed and then you find out if it’s any good -- is something that’s increasingly becoming a barrier to entry. We think that we will actually do better in this business if we remove the barriers of entry for people to use the software.

IW: But there seem to be other ways to lower barriers of entry besides making source code available; trial versions of major enterprise databases, for example.

TB: Well yeah, but that’s halfway there. You can download it and try it. In most cases you can’t see the source code, so you don’t really know what you’re getting into. There’s no community of people out there who really know the source code and how it works. And then you’ve always got this huge capital expense looming over your head. If you decide to pull the trigger and turn it on: Oops! You better get ready to fight something through eight levels of management to get the budget approved.

IW: So how does Sun approach managing a community? I assume there must be some reluctance from customers who say, “The energy I put into this ultimately benefits Sun.”

TB: It’s hard. I think one essential component is to not try and manage it. If it’s a community that you sort of own and operate transparently for your own benefit, you’re absolutely right; there’s going to be substantial resistance from independent developers. But on the other hand, there is a lot of hunger among the developer community to be able to influence and change and direct the evolution of the software that they use. So you can guide, you can influence, you can build a business around it. But if you try and control it, that’s just not going to work.

IW: As a customer, what should I look at to help me evaluate open source projects and their communities?

TB: Well, at the end of the day, you’ve got a business problem to solve, and you need to satisfy yourself that the product you’re looking at is going to solve your business problem. So once you’ve actually gotten past the basic issues of features and performance -- which are crucial, essential things -- the next thing you’re looking at is, Is this a safe long-term bet? And I would think one of the largest determinants of that decision is how healthy and dynamic and large is the community of developers who are engaged working on it.

IW: So it sounds like it’s in Sun’s best interests to encourage communities that are as large and healthy and engaged as possible.

TB: Absolutely. Without any question.