Interview: Simon Phipps

As Chief Open Source Officer at Sun Microsystems, UK-based Simon Phipps' job could become ever more tiring, it seems. The biggest step the company has taken so far is definitely the announcement of the Java Development Kit (and Runtime Environment) becoming free software.

We invited Simon to keynote and FOSDEM and, due to his busy schedule, interviewed him about Sun's position in the free software universe over the phone.

What's motivation to speak at FOSDEM 2007?

Well, I want to share Suns vision of Java as a problem-solving technology in free and open (or GNU) software. One of the main problems people face today, is that different kernels are running underneath their code.
Java, and interpreted (scripting) languages as well, can bring a huge benefit because it isolates from the underlying platform. So the big advantage that Java brings is not really the programming language, but the virtual machine that it runs on.

We want to bring scalable, industrial-strength software to the community, and one way to do it is by introducing exciting software...

So your focus is more Java as a platform, rather than Java as an implementation language?

Yes, for example, Robert Tolksdorf has been maintaining a list of languages that run on the Java virtual machine]. And we're encouraging all these efforts - and Ruby in particular. For us, they're all part of the platform, they're all bringing value into the system.

What was your involvement in the process and the decision to actually use the GPL instead of e.g. CDDL?

As Sun is mainly an engineering company, there were a lot of people involved in the decision -- lots of people had a voice in it.
It's been a very long discussion internally. Everybody agreed on the basic strategy of liberating the code, but there were a number of different opinions about how to reach that goal. In early 2006, we had narrowed our selection to a small number of possible licenses.

As to my role, as chief open source officer I was of course very heavily involved in the decision.

Did Sun feel somewhat "pushed" to go open source because the rest of the Java ecosystem (with efforts like JVMs (such as GNU Classpath, Kaffee, SableVM, GCJ, Apache Harmony, ...) were already free?

Not really.
To us, it was more of question of how far the platform had reached. And in that regard, we were a bit constrained by licensing issues.
For example, some users didn't have access to a coherent package to install Java from. For a very long time, the projects that you mentioned were available, but they weren't fully complete or compatible with what we had.

The biggest problem we faced was that Java could not be packaged well for a lot of users. For Linux users, the only way to get Java from Sun was in an RPM package - and it was a pretty hostile RPM at that.

The Java Distribution License (JDL) solved some issues there -- for example it allowed Tom Marble to create a .deb package in collaboration with Debian.

Our decision to go open source has been painted as "pushed" or "forced" before, but that's completely unlike our feeling about it.
It's just something that fits into our vision, and nothing more. We see Java as an industry standard, and we want to collaborate on it together with the community.

Is Sun expecting something particular from the community?

That's not how we view things.
You have to keep in mind -- Sun is different from companies like IBM or Microsoft. You see, Sun's roots lie with BSD Unix and custom high-end hardware -- big margin machines. Which was, at the time, a completely new market. And that's the heart and spirit of our company: to create and grow new markets. And to grow along with them.

So our strategy for two decades has been to create new business categories. This time, with FOSS, the category is not new, it's already there.
And our new mission now is to help grow that space, and to grow along with it.

Our philosophy is that we should gather around source code to make software, and not worry too much about objectives.
And you have too keep in mind -- the Java world has grown to a huge size. For example, four billion devices have shipped with Java support and there are five million Java developers worldwide.

The benefit for us in opening up Java is that it will allow the market to grow even more. And a bigger market leads to more innovators and more opportunities.

I know that can sound suspicious... But in our view a big community leads to big markets, which lead to big profits.
And we have no interest to "string" competitors by making strategic moves - that's just not how our philosophy works.

Has the reaction from the industry about the opensourcing of the JVM been positive or negative?

We have received almost no negative reactions from the industry -- it's been amazingly positive. There is perhaps one exception, and that's IBM. IBM does not really like the GPL, it favours the Apache license.
But we felt that such a license would have hindered Java's acceptance into Debian -- there are compatibility concerns between the Apache license and the GPL.

Now, OpenSolaris has a different license, because it has a different community. The roots of Solaris lie in the BSD world, and the BSD community was pretty happy with the license that we chose for Solaris -- a license that does not have project-level consequences, but operates on the individual source code files instead.

We keep hearing rumours about OpenSolaris going GPL as well... Will that become reality?

We've not really decided that yet. We're looking at GPL v3, but at the moment it's still a work in progress. We'll continue that discussion internally when v3 has been released.

Are you happy about GPL v3's progress?

We're actually pretty positive about it. The direction that is taken, the process -- it's a good process, and we're involved in it ourselves. And v3 is becoming a pretty good license - we have no issues with its current state.

[Java application server] Glassfish is another major contribution to FOSS. Some people see it as an attempt to gain back some market share from JBoss or IBM, BEA...?

To answer this completely, I first have to sketch some perspective here.

There are two different aspects of a project to consider. One is the source code and the community around it, and the other is the competitive market in which it is being commercialized.

Glassfish is a J2EE container, and it had been available under the CDDL before. And now, we've announced it will also be available under the GPL v2.

We're definitely not freeing it because that would gain us some market share. Glassfish was already being used to gain market share: we've been selling it as Sun Java System Application Server for a very long time.
That decision is just another step to ensure that the whole of Java - ME, SE, EE - is available to all GNU/Linux users, without any license questions whatsoever.

We've opened it up because that fits into our mission to free all Sun software... And the only thing that's holding us back right now are legal issues with our partners.
And here I must come back to my motivation for giving the keynote; why am I coming to FOSDEM. I come to highlight the philosophy that Sun has on software, and software freedom.

We strongly believe that we're evolving to a world where all software, except the upper most leading edge of the market, is developed collaboratively.

And in fact, if you look at JBoss - which is owned by Red Hat - they are already sharing some code with Glassfish. This is a nice example where two companies compete in the marketplace, but cooperate in the community.

We're very determined to free software. And we're taking this beyond software, too. We've freed our chip design [ed's note: see OpenSparc], so that you can now for the first time, buy a machine that is free from the silicon upward.

Now, this doesn't mean we're distributing free computers... but in that regard, we do donate hardware to organizations such as Debian, Gnome and other projects - and we're happy to consider others.

In the future, you'll see Sun even extending its support for free software.

Are you planning to open up all the hardware knowledge of Sun? How is this compatible with being a high-end hardware manufacturer?

Opening up _all_ the hardware stuff is difficult because many of our hardware partners are reluctant about trade secrets. For example, we still don't have free drivers for our video chips. It will be interesting to see whether Intel is going to release free drivers for the discrete graphics chips that have just been announced.

In response to the argument that anyone could just copy our hardware designs, I can only answer with an anecdote. Do you know the joke of the plumber and the washing machine? [not really --ed]

There's this guy whose washing machine is broken, and het calls in the plumber. The plumber comes over, looks at the washing machine for fifteen minutes, and gives it a kick. And suddenly it's fixed.
He then charges $150 and the customer is outraged... That's hundred-and-fifty bucks just for kicking the washing machine! To which the plumber answers: I charge $20 for kicking it and $130 for knowing just how to kick.

Sun is a bit like that plumber - the amount of know-how that we have is significant. And opening up all the platforms that we have is not the same as giving away all our knowledge. There will always be some stuff about our work that's ours, which we won't share - like for example how to manufacture high-performance processors.

A sensitive issue in this regard are software patents... What is Sun's position on this?

Our position is clear: software patents are an outright threat to free software.
On the other hand, we are currently still applying for such patents, for the same reason that one needs a gun when everyone else is running around with guns.

We worked extensively in Europe last year, in collaboration with Mark Webbink from Red Hat, to lobby and inform the policy makers. And we've been able to prevent software patents from being introduced there.

The strategy that we follow now, you could describe it in three points: First, pursue a patent reform in the US. Second, prevent the introduction of software patents in the EU. And third, accumulate and use software patents for the good cause where they are still allowed.

Such a patent reform is much debated. Do you have a vision about how exactly that could be done?

It's a very complex subject and it would lead too far to discuss it here in depth. But I can tell you that yes, we are talking about that.

We have a clear vision on it and are actively working to make it happen.

When contacting you, we noticed your schedule is quite full... What kind of work activities make up a typical day (like today) for you?

Well, today I did a lot of press interviews. The attention for the report by the European Union on FLOSS economics has been very high.

My dat-to-day role is to lead a group of people who engage in the free software community. So a lot of my time goes to the staff; looking after the people.

Today, I've also been busy with the release of the ODF Toolkit. [ed's note: this interview was taken over the phone on 2007-01-23]

On the longer term, we're thinking a lot about the opening-up of middleware, which is a very hard issue.

My job also involves giving advice to the business groups at Sun; to help them choose a direction. So that involves a lot of talking on the phone to various people.

And there is the public speaking of course, like I will do at FOSDEM. Next week I'll be in Sweden, and then I'm off to the USA. I'll be in Limerick for SkyCon, and then comes FOSDEM, after which I'm off to Hamburg and then Berlin for the OpenSolaris conference.

That's a busy schedule all right. We look forward to your keynote!

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This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Belgium License.