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05.15.08

MySQL Juggles Business Models, Life with Sun, and Software Patents

Posted in Database, Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux, GPL, Interview, Microsoft, Oracle, Patents, SUN at 8:36 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Increasingly, as MySQL grows mightier, it is likely to find itself under greater pressure. Part of this pressure is not a competitive one as much as it is pressure which revolves around loyalty. Balancing customer trust against the need for revenue can be hard sometimes. Loyalty to shareholders often antagonizes market requirements, too.

Another vector of risk is the relentless attempt to write and exploit new laws that essentially contradict the GNU Public License (GPL) and therefore sideline or exclude free software, of which MySQL is one. The bigger and more disruptive MySQL becomes, the more attractive a scapegoat it will be. To say this more explicitly, as MySQL attracts more customers at the expense of its counterparts, software patent trolls and vocal critics will more likely paint it their target.

From a public relations and legal perspective, it’s typically easier when you are an underdog because you receive sympathy. But MySQL is growing up, so let’s take a look at some new barriers it will probably face, or is already facing.

Another Storm in a Teacup

In order to better understand the sensitivity of the issue at hand, it’s worth recognizing the importance of MySQL. To many IT professionals, MySQL is a vital ingredient in their stack. It is the engine that organizes and stores personal data. This trend is here to stay, particularly because Web-based applications continue to gain traction. Just as people wish to control their data and escape lock-in, they also wish to have a sense of control over their database, i.e. the software which lies beneath processing, interpreting and delivering this data to other layers of the stack. MySQL offers peace of mind to many.

How quickly things can change though. Inaccurate news broke loose in Slashdot a few weeks ago, insinuating that MySQL was gradually going closed-source. The almost-immediate backlash, which was further fueled and exacerbated by a few sensationalist articles, played a partial role in convincing MySQL to keep the core of the program purely GPL-licensed, essentially backtracking on a decision that had previously been made. Above all, MySQL wanted to keep its users happy. It needed to cope with new types of pressure.

This rather fundamental strategic change was nothing new. Contrary to common belief, MySQL’s revised strategy had been adopted before Sun Microsystems even entered the picture and the company still intends to make some peripheral components (addons) of MySQL proprietary. It’s seen as controversial by those who argue that MySQL’s business potential could equally well be exploited using support and customization services, not sales of proprietary software. Interestingly enough, MySQL did not start off as free software. The same goes for the Linux kernel, which elected the GPL only in 1992.

This latest storm surrounding MySQL has died out by now, but it led me to some amicable conversations with Mårten Mickos, the CEO of MySQL, who is also a Database Senior Vice President at Sun Microsystems following the 1-billion dollar acquisition of his company. Selective responses from him are quoted later on, but I continue to reflect on MySQL’s likely direction with the open confession that I have bias in favor of the GPL’s merits and awareness of existing external threats to it.

MySQL’s Business Model Dilemma

MySQL is unique in the sense that it has become an almost de facto database for GNU/Linux-powered servers (and to an extent Apache also). This gives it an enormous, yet hidden, presence in the World Wide Web. It thrives in a huge userbase and can boast over 100 million downloads of the software so far.

“More recent attempts to change the business model saw a shift from introducing inconveniences to actual restriction imposed on access…”MySQL’s monetization of this success — as measured in terms of popularity or ubiquity — is another story due to its relatively low ‘conversion rate’, i.e. the number of users who turn into paying customers. The ratio recently stood at about 1000:1, which means that only one in a thousand users also becomes a paying customer.

Over the past couple of years, MySQL has earned itself some new critics for subtle changes to its business model. The latest incident, which was mentioned above, is no exception. Examples of controversial moves involve the availability of latest versions of the software and the state of the software which made is available (e.g. pre-compiled program versus source code). There was also a colossal case of misunderstanding last year when discrimination against Debian was wrongly claimed. Unfortunately, such misconceptions and errors live on.

More recent attempts to change the business model saw a shift from introducing inconveniences to actual restriction imposed on access, with the exception of paying customers who receive binaries. In essence, they must handle executable files without accompanying source code, which sometimes translates into lock-in and helplessness, feature- and security-wise. But it didn’t take. MySQL changed its mind. Sort of.

It’s important to remember that when MySQL announced its strategic reversal a week ago, at least as far as the core product is concerned, not much was changed as far as the business model goes. Only its scope was altered and impact thus limited.

To the company’s credit, it did listen. It did take feedback about MySQL into account after the backlash. By all means, it is preferable to inquire about controversial things — keeping users in the loop so to speak — as opposed to making quiet or surprise announcements. The GPL is all about giving users real control, as well as a sense of control over direction of development and whatever they do on their personal computers or servers. Distribution of binaries, for example, does not permit this.

Free software is still scarcely explored in the business sense, but many choose to think of it mainly as a question of control (open source), not just freedom. These two strengths are separate, but not mutually exclusive. One problem that remains with the aforementioned approach, namely the making peripheral components proprietary, is that it turns products as a whole into the equivalent of trial version of software where users get trapped in, then charged premium rates for non-free extensions which they cannot study, modify, or redistribute.

The situation above highlights yet another limiting factor, which can be used as an argument filled with substance against free software — especially software which goes down this particular route at the end. With dual-licensing, the software loses its distinguisher, its added value. For opponents of free software it serves as a fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) argument which may be stronger than “free software relies on support services, so it’s made shoddy for revenue.”

It’s possible to think of all sorts of ways to monetize use with minimal disruption and obtrusion. Some companies already do this with great success. I approached Richard Stallman for his opinion on this and he insisted that it is not just a question of profit. “I don’t think much about the question of what is more profitable, because I am constantly urging people to think about what is ethical and what is not,” he said.

Software Patents

Software patents are an odd duck because they are valid only in a few countries and their economic merits are repeatedly doubted. They typically serve an affluent minority. A controversial issue that came up back in February was the disappearance of MySQL’s rebellious policy on software patents. The acquisition by Sun had an effect on it.

Scott Mace started a big discussion at the time about Sun’s view on software patents and what it all means to MySQL. Sun weighed in, but nonetheless, a fairly brave Web page that protests against software patents did not return after it had been taken down. It has only been amended since then, in order to reflect on convergence or symbiosis of policies. Not everyone was pleased.

“What will prevent MySQL from getting not only further restricted — feature-wise — but also sensitive to software patent baggage?”It’s clear that large companies like Sun can benefit a lot from their patent portfolios. In contrast, how many software patents does MySQL have? MySQL inside Sun can make it an attractive target for patent trolls. Sun has plenty of money and free software projects living under the umbrella of large companies translate into less ‘community backlash’. Think about circumstances where they come under attack that’s akin to that from Trend Micro, as opposed to NetApp, which attacked the titan called Sun. What will prevent MySQL from getting not only further restricted — feature-wise — but also sensitive to software patent baggage? What prevents a company with software patents on database technology from finding ‘artistic’ ways to extract money from MySQL users, e.g. via Web hosts, directly from Sun, or even by approaching customers (especially large companies) and making secret deals, just as Microsoft did?

I approached Mårten Mickos for a comment and his take on this was as follows: “As long as we have software patents legally in our market, the owners of such patents may try to make money on them in FOSS environments, and some will succeed.

“Fortunately there are companies with patents that don’t use them in this way. I am not an expert on Sun’s practice in this regard, but my impression is that Sun hasn’t used it patents for revenue extraction from users or producers of free software,” he concluded.

To be fair, Sun seems to have used its patents only defensively in recent years (examples include NetApp and Kodak). The company’s CEO even offered to defend Linux using Sun’s patents. However, to an extent, it seems like a case of fighting fire with fire while at the same time trying to extinguish the fire by opposing expansion of software patent laws into Europe.

It’s very doubtful that larger companies like Sun will be willing to just throw away their portfolios and annul their software patents altogether, especially after heavy investments that brought competitive advantage. Simon Phipps insists that there is an obligation to shareholders, but by hogging they become not the solution and therefore part of the problem. This may also lead to a separate public relations problem.

As people from FFII might say, based on their extensive experience, a company’s defensive patent becomes offensive when the company gets weaker and therefore feels cornered. The solution lies in invalidation of software patents. To use an analogy, letting more nations have nuclear weapons to neutralize attacks or to counter-attack does not make the world safer. Disarmament does. At the end of the day, large companies that benefit from the existing (and very controversial) system can typically just offer crocodile tears whenever this issue gets raised.

Fighting at All Costs, for Cost

Adoption of free software is still hindered by several key factors. A previous article highlighted problems that tend to escape many people’s attention. A continuous change of laws, for example, can be used to harm free software’s legality or at least put some clouds over its head.

It has unfortunately become a political question. Look not for scientists’ opinions but look mainly at shareholders, lobbyists, lawyers, and lawmakers. It is usually them who call the shots nowadays. Government opposition to an anticipated patent reform, followed by another discouraging outlook further confirmed this very recently. Then again, some say this entire reform was pointless from the very start. It strives to eliminate elements that large companies do not like while keeping in tact the rest which brings benefit to them and ensures monopolization prevails.

The GPL version 3 (GPLv3) was intended to address a few of the problems that are associated with software patents. GPLv4 has already been mentioned by Richard Stallman, who foresees further potential threats to the four essential freedoms that protect and sustain the freedom of software. Free software ought never to turn into something which is neither Free (libre) nor free (gratis). Software patents laws are a great risk to this.

At the moment, MySQL’s CEO does not rule out GPLv3 as a future option and at least a consideration, provided the market matures and adopts this licence too. “We think GPL 3 is great (better than GPL2), and we will move to it when we believe that it is also well accepted among users and customers. Wide acceptance was the reasoning we used for moving to GPL 2 and that’s the reasoning we’ll use for version 3,” says Mårten Mickos. Sun has already made one component of xVM GPLv3-licensed (Ops Center virtualisation to be specific), so it’s apparent that Sun hasn’t any idealogical or fundamental resistance to it.

In summary, MySQL is likely to face issues that are associated with ways of extracting revenue from its users. Another largely forgotten issue is the increased pressure from the outside to extract revenue for collisions involving ideas, especially ones pertaining to algorithms. MySQL ought to ensure that it can keep free software as free as it has always been, but these challenges may not be trivial to address.

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