What's the link between eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, often regarded as the father of modern economics, and the open-source software movement? According to Marten Mickos, the chief executive officer of open-source database company MySQL, it's Smith's concept of an "invisible hand," which guides individuals pursuing their own betterment to achieve goals that also benefit society at large.
Mickos sees an invisible hand at work in much of what's going on in today's open-source community. This includes the wrangling over the current draft of the GNU general public license version 3 (GPLv3), which he anticipates will result in a good outcome. MySQL's database is distributed under the GPL.
Even Oracle's surprise acquisition of Innobase a year ago has worked out well, Mickos contends. Oracle's purchase was widely seen as a predatory strike against MySQL, which bundles the Finnish startup's InnoDB database storage engine with its database. The move led to other firms approaching MySQL about developing their own engines for the database and ended up with the company opening up its database storage API (application programming interface) to third parties to give users more choice of which engines to use.
Mickos also talked about other aspects of the open-source business model and what lies ahead for MySQL when he chatted Friday with the IDG News Service. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
IDGNS: Recently, a number of open-source developers have expressed their unhappiness with the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the second draft of GPLv3. Are you concerned about a potential forking of the license as some people stick with GPLv2 and others move to GPLv3?
Mickos: It's not a catastrophe if we have two GPLs out there. It does show how sometimes success can turn against you. The fact that GPLv2 has been so successful means developers don't see a need to change. They say, 'If it's not broke, don't fix it.' I agree with the arguments the FSF has with the license. They've done their homework and they have good rational reasons for changing it. But they also have a philosophical, dogmatic attitude that many open-source developers don't have.
We've always preached that open source is not a religion or a political party or a society. FSF does have a societal aspect. That's a great area but some developers don't care. They're not here to save mankind or save the planet from destruction. The process is still ongoing. It's time to debate, not time to deliver conclusions. At MySQL, we haven't made up our minds on GPL and we don't need to do so yet, it's not time.
IDGNS: How do you decide when MySQL needs to develop new features for the database and when to rely on the open-source community for those innovations?
Mickos: One of the essences of our business is to know when to do what. You need to figure out what the end user wants. We have 10 million users. How the heck do you figure out what they want and then figure out how to do it? If 9 million want one thing and 1 million another, it could be that the 1 million is more important than the 9 million. It's the ability to know what makes sense.