One of the oddities of Sun’s acquisition by Oracle is that Oracle now owns the MySQL trademark. They also employ the largest concentration of developers who are familiar with the code base. What they don’t control is the code, and who they no longer employ is a lot of the key people who got MySQL to where it is. So what’s next?

From Oracle’s viewpoint, there are three likely scenarios:

  1. Ignore MySQL, let the remaining team go, hope it dies.
  2. Try selling it off.
  3. Embrace Open Source and continue to improve mySQL.

Consider each of these options.

Oracle Ignores MySQL, Hoping for a Withering Death

There’s revenue associated with MySQL. It might be a trickle from Oracle’s perspective, but it’s more than enough to keep a good medium sized company running smoothly. Tens of millions of sites have absolutely no interest in moving to a new database manager, and there’s heaps of MySQL specific expertise out there now. The MySQL revenue stream isn’t going away soon. If Oracle tries this strategy, the MySQL code will soon emerge under a different name, and the resulting business will probably be all the more nimble for it’s passage through Sun and Oracle. Not a likely scenario but good for MySQL nonetheless.

Oracle Sells MySQL

Good luck. Can you say embarrassing writedown? Sun’s billion dollar acquisition of MySQL is right up there on the “WTF” scale, ranking with eBay’s purchase of Skype and Google’s acquisition of YouTube, all for stupid money. [Side note: M&A groups should refrain from hiring people who come out of the derivatives world.] Even then, name a buyer at any reasonable price. I can’t think of one.

Oracle Embraces FOSS

Initially this looks like we’re getting into geek porn fantasies. What can Oracle actually give MySQL that aligns with it’s corporate interests?

There are some patents, well past the end of their productive life, that Oracle could release. This could give MySQL a few neat features that would improve performance. But these are small incremental gains at best. There’s also no selective release here. Once those techniques are in a GPL code base, they’re up for grabs by any open source project.

They could dump lesser versions of various core technologies into MySQL in order to set up a smooth transition to their proprietary products. This would introduce a lot of the “bloat” that made MySQL so popular in the first place. I think we’d see more nimble forks appear in no time. Not a great strategy.

Then there’s the philosophical differential. The one thing that’s evident from my work with Joomla, and my observation of other solutions in the same space, is that success in open source is all about building a strong collaborative culture around the product. While this isn’t incompatible with running a profitable business, it is incompatible with the traditional “destroy the competition” approach. On the surface, capitalism in open source is not going to mix well with the capitalism as warfare.

Then there’s the culture clash of Alpha Geek versus Alpha Capitalist. For a good example of this we need look no further than a blog post from Michael Widenius. He writes “Mr. Ellison, you are undoubtedly a master tactician. However, thinking two moves ahead in the open source world is not good enough. You need strategy. Long term, meaningful, viable strategy. You need to think years ahead, not just to the next fiscal quarter.” There’s nothing quite like a bonehead mix of arrogance and ignorance for your first move. Anyone who thinks Oracle got to the position it’s in by purely tactical moves that look “two moves ahead” is clueless. Then the icing: Widenius closes with “I’d love to speak with you about it”. Well, consider condescending to picking up the phone, buddy. If you think Larry’s going to read your blog and give you a call, you might consider getting back onto your meds (or off of them, either way a state change is in order).

Beyond Strategy, what About Mission?

If you take a step back and look at the mission behind Oracle’s numerous strategic moves over the years, you see their overarching mission: destroy Microsoft.

What’s most interesting about this is that this ethos is also deeply ingrained in the thinking of many open source developers. It’s a small step from “freedom from proprietary software” to “freedom from Microsoft” because Microsoft is the biggest, most obvious first target.

So there is a possibility that despite the cultural differential, Oracle may be viewing open source as a strategic weapon. It’s also worth noting that along with Sun, Oracle gets the services of Johnathan Schwartz, who has demonstrated a crystal clear understanding of the open source model. As Mitchell Ashley notes in “Converging on Microsoft”, Oracle is now in a good position to strike at Microsoft at a time of relative weakness.

If Ashley is right, Larry Ellison will become an active evangelist for open source, using Oracle’s position to drive at the core of Microsoft’s space. I’m sceptical of this. I don’t think the enterprise world is ready to accept the idea of mission critical applications as open source, and I don’t think Oracle’s enterprise business is served well by this just yet. That won’t slow Oracle down one bit. Johnathan Schwartz can become Oracle’s open source advocate, speaking for that part of the business. Open source is walking its way up from the bottom, from compilers to operating systems, through servers and databases. At each stage it takes a little time to gain credibility and foothold, but the value proposition is compelling. If Oracle backs MySQL and proves that it is a viable solution in Oracle’s original space, then it not only helps them advance their mission, it helps advance open source.

Predictions

Either way MySQL – or at least the code that is currently MySQL – is going to come through this just fine. That’s the GPL in action: it’s simply not possible acquire and kill good code.

I think we’re going to see the third scenario. Oracle’s support of Sun’s open source technologies will be strong and unconditional. But this support won’t extend to their enterprise applications. Not until the market is ready.

Whether I’m right or wrong, we’ll see something happen quickly, within two quarters of the closing of the acquisition.