Sun's newest offering: FUD

The most annoying thing about the on-going SCO thing isn't the actual SCO thing itself, or even the way a certain stock price continues to go up. (Mirrored by the decline in my belief that the stock market has anything at all to do with reality.) No, the most annoying thing is that Sun has apparently decided that this is a perfect time to unleash a barage of FUD over the use of Linux.

For the past couple of weeks, it seems, Scott McNealy has been making the round of the trade rags, telling anybody and everybody "Don't touch open source software" unless you have legal protections from your supplier, while simultaneously talking about how much Sun knows about open source software. That alone would be annoying, but not sufficiently annoying for me to even bother pointing at it -- Sun is on the ropes, and McNealy is trying to compete (and failing), so the FUD comes out. It's like the barrage of fouling at the end of a basketball game: annoying but expected.

But the most recent example of this crap (which happens to feature Jonathan Schwartz instead of McNealy) was the straw that broke the camel's back. Let's pull this apart a bit, shall we?

About Sun's Approach to Linux
To me, operating systems are the single most valuable asset on the Internet. Period.

The reason why operating systems are so valuable are the same reasons a masthead in a newspaper is so valuable or the chassis of a vehicle is so valuable. It is the vehicle through which you distribute all your content. Absent an operating system you are left to your own devices to try to get your product out into the world.

Everybody that looked at the chassis the last time you were car shopping, hands up. Right, that's what I thought. Now, at a time when everybody else is talking about how Linux does for the OS what the x86 processor family did for the CPU -- that is, make it cheap, relatively uniform, and not that exciting (i.e., a "commodity" product) -- can we imagine why somebody who makes a different OS might want to talk about the importance of the OS? Is it because the hardware products that

they sell aren't x86-based, and they can't compete on CPU features? Anybody? Bueller?

Schwartz goes on to talk about Solaris on Intel, which is such an utter joke that I'm not even going to bother. If you're not in IT, ask people you know who are about Solaris on Intel sometime. Be prepared to be ranted at a bit, and to hear lots of words like "crap", "no drivers", "pain in the ass", and "sucks". He also says, "If Red Hat tweaks their distribution just a little bit, does anyone care about what Linus says? ISVs (define) qualify to Red Hat, not to Linus." Got that? Red Hat is the only thing that matters.

There's another bit of FUD after this that's beautiful, in a really twisted and evil way:

But there are two problems [with open source development]. One is that IBM appears to have committed a landmark mistake in the [alleged] leakage of its IP license from SCO into the mainstream distribution of Linux. My bet is that as a result, there's going to be a bunch of end users, who, just like the mothers of 14-year-olds who trade files, will be getting letters telling them that they have an obligation to compensate for the liberties they took with that IP.

Doesn't that just make you want to know who inserted that 'alleged' bit? Yeah, me too.

From the various back-handed slaps he takes at Red Hat, you can tell that Sun is getting trouble from them in some of their market segments. Check out this aside that he tosses out:

[Interviewer] What of enterprises running, say, JBoss for application servers? They run it because it's cheaper.

[Schwartz] That's an illusion. Did you know that Red Hat has no more free Red Hat?

I'm not a Red Hat user, and I don't particularly care for their products -- but that's a crock. You can get free Red Hat the way you always could: by downloading it. Will you get support from Red Hat? No, you have to pay for that. In the sense that Schwartz is talking about, there's never been free Red Hat, because you always had to pay to get support. That's what they were actually selling.

Then we have another bit about how Red Hat is the only Linux that matters, in the context of Linux on the mainframe:

People qualify to distributions. What was the distribution IBM was going to run on its mainframe? IBM's distribution. Guess how many ISVs are going to write to IBM's distribution? Zero.

Now, two questions later in the interview, we find this gem:

Q: Which Linux distribution version will you be using for Mad Hatter [Sun's desktop bundle, which includes MS Exchange, Sun's StarOffice application suite, Mozilla browser, Java 2, Gnome 2 and Linux]?

Our own. We will likely work with other companies to build it.

Now, what are you expecting at this point? That's right, the obvious "why will people qualify to yours if they won't qualify to IBM's?" question. Does it get asked? No, of course not. A few wet noodle slaps for Erin Joyce, the interviewer. (And when did Sun start shipping MicroSoft Exchange? That one is in the running for worst fact-checking/proof-reading error of the week...)

The "what's important in a Linux distribution" madness continues with:

The thing you really need to think about with a Linux distribution is what does an ISV qualify to? On a server side they generally qualify to a very low level set of APIs

Got that? Those low-level APIs are under community control (which includes Red Hat and all the other distribution vendors), and those are what's important. Now, those APIs are so low-level that they're actually uniform -- they're the same everywhere -- which means that the stuff he was spouting off earlier about Red Hat being the only thing that matters is crap. (Or the low-level API thing is crap, take your pick -- they can't both be right.) Now, does he get called on this? Nope. A few more wet noodle slaps for Erin.

That brings us to the end of the article. What have we learned? Well, if read uncritically, we've learned that Linux and open source software in general is a big stinking morass of potential liability, and only a fool would venture in without a strong protector (i.e., Sun) to shield them from the potential business-destroying hailstorm of litigation. However, if you read between the lines and break things down a bit, you come away with a point of view that's quite different than that. First of all, Sun's Linux strategy is still a mess. They're doing their own distro, then they're not, now they are again -- or, at least, they were at the time this interview occurred. Maybe it's changed again. Second, at this point, they're more worried about losing business to Red Hat than they are to Microsoft. Why? Because pretty much everybody that's going to go to Windows is already gone. Sun's remaining customers are Unix shops, and have to or want to remain Unix shops, for whatever reason. But unless they've got applications that require 64bit CPUs, Linux (be it Red Hat or somebody else) on commodity Intel hardware is going to provide greater performance at lower cost. The reliability might not be as good as those Enterprise-class Sun servers, but the prices are cheap enough that you can over-provision by a factor of two and still save money. You've got a one-time porting effort (which, if your code is any good, won't be that hard), and then you're golden. (And Sun is out another customer.) Plus, with the availability of Itanic2 and Opteron CPUs, even the 64bit barrier isn't a real obstacle. Sun isn't going to go out of business any time soon, but they're going to get pushed into the same niche backwater where SGI lives, unless they manage to come up with something more substantial than the smoke, mirrors, and FUD that they're currently pushing.