MySQL’s Post-Oracle Future

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.

Social Media: Why Facebook; Why Twitter?

As either a younger member of the boomer generation, or an older member of Gen-X, I’m a member of a big demographic that seems to have a hard time understanding social media. The most common reaction I get to mentioning something on Facebook is “I will never have a Facebook account!”

I realize now that part of the bad reputation that social media has with middle-aged adults is due to the fact that most of these people are parents, and everything they know about social media sites has come from their kids.

This led me to a great insight. Good social media sites are malleable to individual users, and that’s what makes them so powerful. I am certain that my Facebook experience is vastly different from that of your average teenager’s, and that’s a good thing.

A middle-aged friend recently asked me about Facebook and Twitter, with the subtext “I don’t ‘get’ either of them.” I’ve reworked my response a bit in hope that it will be helpful to others:

The main purpose of Facebook is to get found by people you already know but have lost touch with, think of the people you would invite to a high school reunion. Simple as that. It’s also good for keeping up on the big stream of small things that winds up being news in a nominally mundane life. It works well if you’re not “always on” the net. You can pop in every week or so and catch up. If you ignore the clever little time-wasting applications and notification noise, it’s a useful tool. In short, Facebook is good at making an electronic link to people you already know.

Twitter is much more geared to making new connections and is really something for those of us who are “on the ‘net” most of the time. What it’s best at is finding new clever people, and getting breaking news. Information travels very quickly in Twitter, and to a large extent it’s filtered to the interests of the people you follow, which means you get more information about the things you care about. As a writer, it’s also superb at making you edit things down. The 140 character limit is brutal, but it enforces the practice of a clarity that can carry into other writing.

So how did I do? Is there anything else that “defines” these sites?

“Word of Mouth” + Campaign = Oxymoron

With the rise of social media sites and services (Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, and so on), a whole new field of “Social Marketing Expert” has been created. Aside from the obvious fact that it’s hard to be a credible expert in a relatively new domain, the silliness of some of these “experts” is laughable.

By far the best of this bunch are those who have been discredited elsewhere and are hoping that their bankrupt strategies can somehow find new life in a new medium. It may be true that “the medium is the message”, but sometimes the message sucks universally and thus transcends all media.

The prime example here is “word of mouth” marketers. These aren’t the people who say, quite correctly, that word of mouth is the most powerful form of marketing communication anyone can get, but those who figure that somehow word of mouth is a tool, something that can be created out of thin air.

Surely manufactured word of mouth has been sufficiently discredited that we don’t have to bear through more ill-advised campaigns in the social media space. Is there anyone still doing the “paid shill” scam, where people are paid to go into public spaces and talk up specific products? Have sufficient bloggers been roasted over online flames for accepting money in exchange for talking up products? Apparently not.

So get ready for a (hopefully brief) onslaught of bull masquerading as recommendations. It will be easy to spot, let’s take a look at a quick example:

Slimeball:Good morning.
You:Good morning Slimeball, what’s the weather like over there?
Slimeball:Pretty good, it’s a great day for DumbProduct!
You:So, it’s warm and sunny or something?
Slimeball:Actually it’s raining quite heavily, perfect for DumbProduct.
You:I see, and how are the kids?
Slimeball:They’re happy, thanks to DumbProduct.
You:Just hold on a second while I block you and write a negative blog post about DumbProduct’s unethical marketing techniques.

Bottom line: if you’re a marketer don’t do this. Just don’t. Build genuine word of mouth by delivering a great product and providing great service. Encourage your customers to talk about you, but please, never cross the line and start trying to pay for it. No good can come from this.

A List of Twitter Types

I’ve been “hanging out” on Twitter for about three weeks now. My interactions with it have evolved quite a bit over that time.

When I first got on, my attitude was “what’s the point?” That became “okay, so this is the best part of Facebook minus the dumb applications and a lot of FB’s cool-but-useless user interface.” But along with this functionality came a challenging signal to noise ratio. How can you decide who to follow? It’s certainly not by popularity. Some of the most followed accounts are little more than posts of the form “(hook text) (external link) more on (topic) at (posters_site).” In other words, “Here’s something vaguely interesting on a topic we cover. Hopefully the first link will generate the expectation that our site has even more useful information, and you’ll start using us as a source.”

If that’s all Twitter had to offer, I’d be gone by now. But despite the noise, there’s quality in the signal when you find it. I have interacted with people with unquestionable intelligence, people with expertise in interesting areas, and people with humour and insight. Twitter is also undeniably a superb source for news, both global and local.

The other problem is that few of us are consistently brilliant, so even on an individual level there’s no telling how many mundane posts you’ll have to read before encountering the gem that makes it worthwhile.

So I have developed a list of user types for Twitter that I use as a guideline when deciding who to follow:

  • The “I am a Channel” type is interested in their follower count above all else. Every post they make returns to a gateway on their site, so they can pump up their traffic stats. Some are more subtle, but the ultimate goal is to make their web properties a destination.
  • The “monetize” type is intent on convincing you that they know how to monetize your online presence. Inevitably this leads you to a pitch for their e-books and/or training courses. Somehow I get the feeling that these people are all modern equivalents of the “Make $1 Million from Classified Ads” artists. why do I get the feeling that the way you monetize is by selling e-books telling people how to monetize?
  • The “I am a social media maven” type — which is distinct from an actual social media expert — is a variation on “monetize”. All you have to do is buy/subscribe, and they’ll show you how to get to the top of the social media heap. By and large, these folks would fare far better if fewer of them appeared to be laid off auto workers living in their mother’s basements. The ones who seem to have some class wind up being the ones who value connections above all else. As I’ve said before, there’s something unsettling about “hook up with me on LinkedIn as a trusted source, even if I don’t know you from a serial killer”.
  • The “random link” type finds purportedly interesting information and tweets it with a useless explanation, as in “wonderful (link)”. I suppose that somewhere out there, the simple act of posting makes the link worthwhile, but in my experience so far, 85% of the links go to stuff that is old, dull, boring, or just plain not interesting. A complete waste of time. Explain what’s interesting about the link, please.
  • The “topic feed” type usually picks a well-defined topic to post about and either relates facts about that topic or posts links with information relevant to the topic. Focus is the key to success here. If the topic is pig farming, it no good can come from posting random comments on abstract art.
  • The “expert” type goes one better than the topic feed. These are people with a real interest and some expertise in their field, and they regularly post observations and insights along with the “topic feed” fare. A significant number of posts from these people reference original content that hey have compiled or authored.
  • The “personality” type is someone who has a real world profile and is using Twitter as another channel for communicating to their audience. Think Obama.
  • The “community” type is a member of a smaller community that uses Twitter to keep up to date. This is what Twitter seems to have originally been designed for. Some of these communities have “personality” types, who have a significant profile in within the scope of that community.
  • The “shared mundanity” type posts nothing but tidbits from their life. As in “listening to x while doing y”. There’s a fine line here. Much of the charm of Twitter is getting a snapshot into other people’s lives, but we don’t need the whole film; odds are that you’re just not that interesting. If none of these posts have any meaning, if they don’t transcend mere observation, then the unfollow button is not far away.

The real challenge here is that most people exhibit a mix of these types, and probably a few more that I haven’t identified yet. Twitter is all about constructing your own community and becoming a part of it. It’s social media at its most fascinating.

Newspapers are Dead. Expect a Very Long Funeral.

Writing on ojr.org, Getty Storch asserts that “Papers must charge for websites to survive“. There is a lively debate in the comments that follow, most of them are in disagreement with Storch’s analysis.

This includes mine, which I reproduce here.

Anyone who thinks newspapers can survive on local content needs to spend a few weeks on Twitter. Here is a medium where news arrives in near real time, is reliable (since misinformation is rapidly corrected by others), and relevant. This applies just as well in a global environment. I have seen real reports from people on the scene of demonstrations in Thailand and Athens, and learnt about the supply of gas from Russia to Slovakia from people in cold buildings. Twitter and similar channels tell me about traffic jams on my route downtown, about power outages and emergencies in ways that no newspaper or even television station can ever dream of achieving.

Twitter has merely brought something that has been happening for a very long time into the mainstream. As a case in point, I learnt about the death of Princess Diana via an international online chat almost three hours before the local media picked it up. This is a decade ago. Times have changed.

Information is now free and it will remain so. Any attempt to charge for access to it is absolutely doomed. The only hope that news media, particularly “print” media have for survival is by adding value. This means aggregating sources, adding perspective, and performing astute analysis. Even so, most of the revenue from these activities will be derived from online advertising, and those revenues will be orders of magnitude below what the industry currently sees as normal.

The newspaper as we know it is dead. There is no model that will resuscitate it, period. Rigor mortis has set in, the patient just doesn’t fully realize it yet.