MySQL co-founder questions viability of MySQL fork to protect users

Ex-MySQL leaders take opposite stances in EU-vs.-Oracle discussion

MySQL's ex-CEO Marten Mickos and MySQL co-founder Michael "Monty" Widenius recently released open letters to the EU. Marten supports the Oracle acquisition of MySQL, as part of the Sun deal. Monty urges the EU to block MySQL from being controlled by Oracle.

Considering their points of view, I'm no longer convinced that the EU should just approve the acquisition and let market forces take over. In the long run, I think, and hope, that Oracle will act in its best interests, and those interests will align with MySQL customer interests -- emphasis on "I think" and "hope."

[ MySQL co-founder and creator Michael "Monty" Widenius has said Oracle should sell the database. | Oracle's Larry Ellison last week offered reassurances that Sun technologies will not go away. ]

Let me start with Marten's conclusion as to why the EU should allow the Oracle acquisition:

I believe that Oracle's acquisition of Sun (and MySQL) will increase competition in the database market. And I also believe that if, on the other hand, it becomes difficult or impossible for large companies to acquire open-source assets, then venture investments in open-source companies will slow down, harming the evolution of and innovation in open source, which would result in decreased competition.

I completely agree with Marten here. If open source vendors and their VCs aren't able to sell to larger companies, who may or may not be competitors, then open source investments will be negatively impacted. Closed source vendors have purchased their closed source competition in the past. And yes, the acquiring vendor has, more often than not, migrated the customers to the acquiring vendor's product. Should Oracle attempt this with MySQL, proponents of the deal argue that MySQL customers have several options from other firms providing MySQL support and services. To this end, Marten writes:

...the few thousand customers of the MySQL Enterprise subscription offering.

These customers would be alarmed by a slow-down in development of MySQL and/or in the increase of price of the subscription offering. But they would not be alone. If the product did not evolve, these users could turn to the forks that would emerge. And as for commercial subscription services, they could turn to the various firms that provide MySQL services. If there were a sufficient number of such customers, it might turn out to be a market opportunity for a larger services-oriented company.

However, in a position paper that Monty's company funded, and written by Florian Muller, an influential EU and MySQL stakeholder, Muller writes:

If the new owner decided at some point to call a halt to MySQL's climbing up the disruption curve, it would be extremely difficult for any other commercial entity (hereinafter referred to as a "fork vendor") to pick up the thread from there and practically impossible to do so quickly. This kind of competition would be ineffective compared to the competitive pressures exercised by MySQL AB while it was independent or by the MySQL division of Sun Microsystems, even if such an entity had the theoretical ability to recruit many software developers previously involved with MySQL.

To come straight to the most important point, the bulk of MySQL-related revenues at this stage depends on the two largest income streams, dual licensing and premium subscriptions, and on the current basis, a fork vendor would find itself effectively precluded from tapping those revenue sources.

Muller argues that expecting existing and future MySQL customers to reject Oracle's control over MySQL and turn to a fork vendor will not be commercially viable enough for the fork vendor to the degree that it was for the owner of MySQL's brand and IP. A fork vendor would not be able to offer a non-GPL version of MySQL. This is an important revenue driver with ISVs who don't want to tie their product to the GPL or enterprises that do not want to utilize GPL code.

On the seemingly simple, yet costly front, the fork vendor wouldn't even be able to reuse MySQL's existing documentation and would instead have to recreate product documentation. The fork vendor would also be exposed to patent infringement allegations, which may be difficult for the fork vendor to defend against, especially if the plaintiff is a large company with deep pockets and a large patent portfolio.

Muller and Monty have surfaced enough questions for the EU and open source community to rethink whether "anyone can fork the code" is reason enough for Oracle to shepherd the MySQL code, company, and community appropriately. In the end, I think it makes business sense for Oracle to do so. And I hope that Oracle realizes the benefits of a vibrant MySQL customer and user base.

Follow me on Twitter: SavioRodrigues.

p.s.: I should state: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies, or opinions."

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