Sun and Software Uncertainty

Most of us computer folks have, at some point, been burned by a technology merger or buyout. Maybe you really, really loved Netscape Navigator and watched America OnLine (AOL) destroy it. Maybe you were a BeOS user left in the cold when Be Inc. was bought-out by Palm and the operating system was discontinued. Maybe you really liked Adobe GoLive (though I can’t imagine why) and, after the Macromedia merger, were forced to switch to DreamWeaver or a competing product. This happens all the time—companies go out of business, or are purchased, or merge with other companies, and every so often a piece of software you really love gets the axe.

This isn’t usually the end of the world, since there are always competing products that you can live with or even learn to love. It becomes a bit more tricky though when you have tons of files in a particular format and the original product disappears. If you wrote hundreds of documents in WordStar for DOS, those documents might open in Word or or WordPerfect . . . or they might not. Your access to your own data relies on whether other companies thought it was worth the effort to reverse engineer the formats you used at all, let alone whether they devoted enough resources to do it well.

Having been burned by this in the past—both because of mergers and bankruptcies and, at times, by my own decisions to switch to competing products—I now make an effort to store all of my documents in ‘open’ formats. The OpenDocument format, for example, is the format in which all my office documents are saved. These files can be opened with virtually no data loss in, Microsoft Office (with plugins), IBM Lotus Symphony, Sun StarOffice, Corel WordPerfect Office, Google Docs, and other products. They can be opened on Macs, Windows PCs, and Linux PCs—and probably other, more obscure platforms too.

Because the formats are open and documented, even if every single one of those products gets discontinued there is nothing stopping an intrepid programmer from writing a new application from scratch to handle them properly. Open formats protect the user—me—from ever having his data locked in a file he can no longer open. Users have even more protection if they use open source software. Even if the people or company who created the software in the first place disappear, open source—the availability of the program code of the application—ensures that anybody else with the proper skills and motivation can pick up where they left off.

This is especially important this week, as Sun Microsystems—which handles a number of high-profile open source projects—has been bought-out by Oracle Systems, a company with relatively little apparent interest in open source. Many of Sun’s products are ones I use almost every day—, VirtualBox, Java, and MySQL—and it is natural to worry about the future of software products you use when their creators undergo major corporate changes. Will they be discontinued? Will their development head off in a direction I don’t like?

In this case though, I’m not worried. Each of those products is licensed under an open source license, and if Oracle indeed discontinues development of one or even all of them they will not die. The development communities that have built up around these products will take them in, or other smart businesses will, and they’ll live on. If Oracle moves them in the wrong direction (which they have every right to do), anybody else can ‘fork’ the product in a different direction. Oh, maybe their names will change, or the pace of their development will drag, but there is no concern that any of these products will die. Open source and open formats together ensure that we users won’t be left out in the cold like those poor Netscape, BeOS, and GoLive users were in days past.

Of course, ideally, Oracle will continue to devote the same or even more resources to these excellent products. But even if Oracle does their worst, there’s no question whether I’ll still be able to open my files in 2, 5, or 20 years. I can rest easy.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.