Europe's dishonest squeeze play on Oracle over MySQL

The EU claims to be the friend of open source. But insisting on a spin-off of MySQL benefits no one -- except a tiny European software maker afraid to compete with Oracle

I've never been a fan of Oracle, a company that bullies its customers and used its billions to scarf up nearly all of its competitors in enterprise software. But Larry Ellison and company are right to stand up to the European Union. The demand by the European Commission (the EU's executive arm) that Oracle agree to spin out MySQL before approving its $7.4 billion acquisition of Sun is unnecessary and destructive. And with a few exceptions, there's strong support for that position in the open source community.

"Unless Oracle decides to snuff out MySQL entirely, it's hard to see why it would be a bad thing. They have resources to further development and to build community. And since MySQL will still be freely available regardless, users can simply opt to stick with an unpaid version," says Dave Rosenberg, co-founder and former CEO of MuleSource.

[ Relive Sun Microsystems' rise and fall in InfoWorld's slideshow. | Neil McAllister traces who wins if Oracle loses MySQL. ]

Exactly. Oracle claims -- and I agree -- that it has no reason to damage MySQL. It's simply not a significant threat to Oracle's position in the enterprise database market. In fact, it's complementary, giving Oracle entry to companies that use MySQL on a departmental or work team level.

Moreover, "Oracle has shown itself to be a pretty good steward of the [open source] Sleepycat technology it bought a couple of years ago," argues Bernard Golden, a longtime open source consultant and author.

Who's the bully now?
So why is the EU throwing its weight around? "The EU wants to spawn a native IT industry," says Dennis Byron, an analyst at IT Investment Research. What's more, he says, the big winners if the spin-off occurs are likely to be  Michael Widenius and others who are attempting to build a MySQL fork called Maria into a business, he says.

There's also the possibility that German software maker SAP, Oracle's most potent rival in enterprise applications market, has been using its political muscle to block the deal -- a claim SAP denies.

Byron figures these companies are afraid to compete with a MySQL backed by Oracle's marketing muscle, so they've enlisted the EU as an ally. "The whiners know that it's just that Maria is 30 years behind Oracle's relational database research and development. In theory, Maria could catch up if the EU tilts the playing field enough," he writes.

Feisty guy that he is, Byron has been arguing that Oracle should tell the EU to, well, stuff it, and walk away from Europe. Given the reality that Oracle's European revenues are about $8 billion, and that the Sun acquisition would add just another $2 billion or so, that's not going to happen. It's much more likely that Oracle will surrender or, less likely, back out of the deal entirely if Sun keeps hemorrhaging key people. And that would be a terrible outcome for Sun's employees and the IT industry, which has gained so much from Sun's technological prowess.

What Europe is really after
The EU action highlights yet again the complex political world that shapes the global technology business, and Europe's own agenda in these politics is to keep American companies from competely dominating Europe's companies and markets.

The European Commission issued a fine of $1.44 billion to Intel this year after finding the company guilty of antitrust violations, an action that has been criticized by the commission's own ombudsman. In rare cases, Europe has also blocked mergers between American companies. In 2001, for example, Europe prevented a merger between General Electric and Honeywell even after American regulators had given the deal a green light. (The United States has also approved Oracle's Sun purchase.)

On the other hand, the EU has tried to help the vibrant European open source community by encouraging government agencies to adopt open source software in place of Microsoft's Windows and Office. And that may explain the stance of Richard Stallman, the outspoken advocate of "free" software, who supports the EU's position: "If Oracle is allowed to acquire MySQL, it will predictably limit the development of the functionality and performance of the MySQL software platform, leading to profound harm to those who use MySQL software to power applications," Stallman said in a letter to the EU.

I simply don't buy that argument. Open source MySQL is simply too strong to be killed, even if Oracle were foolish enough to move in that direction. Mulesource CEO Greg Schott put it very well: "The EU's fears are misplaced. The massive MySQL community is, by the very nature of open source, a multiheaded hydra. If Oracle cuts off a head, two will grow back. Try to kill the beast entirely, and the NotLarry'sSQL fork will appear."

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This story, "Europe's dishonest squeeze play on Oracle over MySQL," was originally published at Follow Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog at

Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that Florian Mueller is directly associated with the Maria open source venture. Mr Mueller informs me that he is not.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.