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Five years of Sun software under Oracle: Were the critics right?

They said Java, MySQL and Solaris were all doomed

Oracle-Sun anniversary Back in 2010, critics worried that Sun Microsystems' software portfolio would wither on the vine once Oracle got its hands on it. Five years on and the worst fears have proven baseless, yet former Sun diehards have had plenty to be disappointed about since Larry Ellison & Co gobbled the former server heavyweight.

Although Sun was founded in 1982 as a maker of Unix workstations, in its later years it had assembled a rich collection of software, ranging from servers and middleware to databases, virtualization platforms, high-performance computing (HPC) tools, and even the productivity suite.

Sun was also fairly innovative as commercial software firms went. By the 2000s it had become one of the largest corporate contributors to open source projects in the world. It had also adopted a unique business model, where customers paid monthly subscription fees based on headcount in exchange for unlimited access to everything in Sun's software portfolio. Unfortunately, however, this strategy wasn't earning it much revenue.

Oracle, on the other hand, is a very different kind of company from the Sun of yesteryear, one concerned foremost with the bottom line, rather than lofty notions of "community" and "sharing." And while many of Sun's software products have lingered on, post-gobble, others have been cast by the wayside in pursuit of profit, with Oracle focusing mainly on Sun's "crown jewels": Java, MySQL, and Solaris.

Former Sun customers, employees, and partners have met these changes with varying degrees of concern, outrage, and acceptance. They may all have good points.

Whose Java is it anyway?

James Gosling, the so-called Father of Java, didn't last long at Oracle following the buyout. He spent a few months as Big Red's chief technology officer for client software before leaving in April 2010. A 26-year veteran of Sun, Gosling would later describe Oracle as "an extremely unpleasant environment" to work in, and many others in the Java community have similarly chafed under the change in leadership.

While the Java Community Process (JCP) is technically open, Oracle has followed Sun's lead in taking the foremost governance role over the Java specs – and if anything, it has gripped the reins even tighter. That quickly led to dissention in the ranks, which culminated in the Apache Software Foundation quitting the JCP Executive Committee in December 2010 following clashes with Oracle over licensing issues.

In an open letter to the Java community, the ASF declared that the JCP under Oracle's control "is not an open specification process" and that the Java specifications are "proprietary technology that must be licensed directly from the spec lead [Oracle] under whatever terms the spec lead chooses."

"The commercial concerns of a single entity, Oracle, will continue to seriously interfere with and bias the transparent governance of the ecosystem," the ASF said, adding that independent, open-source implementations of Java were impossible under Oracle's licensing terms.

To be fair, the ASF had raised similar complaints when Sun was in charge of Java. But Sun was generally thought of as a friendlier company than Oracle, and certainly a less litigious one. If Sun disagreed with you today, there was always hope that you could convince it to see things your way tomorrow.

Less so with Oracle, which has guarded its Java intellectual property jealously. Since 2011 it has pressed forward with a multibillion-dollar lawsuit against Google, claiming the online giant's Android smartphone OS violates both patents and copyrights related to Java. And while past court decisions have swung more in Google's favor, neither side has given up yet, with the case now possibly headed to the US Supreme Court.

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