Java Crowd Has Mixed Views on Potential Sun-IBM Deal

IBM's reported interest in buying Sun Microsystems has Java and open-source community members expressing both hopes and worries about the implications of such a deal on the tools, applications and open-source projects they use every day.

Big Blue is willing to pay at least US$6.5 billion for Sun, according to a Wall Street Journal report Wednesday that cited anonymous sources.

But while analysts said a deal would make strategic sense for both companies -- such as by providing a stronger sales channel for Sun's software and a large installed base of Sun server customers for IBM -- some talk in the Java world's trenches is not so sunny.

One poster to the Java developer community site Javalobby expressed worry that IBM would not expend much effort supporting Sun's NetBeans IDE (integrated development environment) and instead favor the IBM-backed Eclipse toolkit.

"What would be the point of having two IDEs by the same company? Especially in these economic times," said user 'WaiHo.' "Day two after IBM takes over Sun, it announces that 'because of budget needs' they will drop NetBeans, as well as every other product for which IBM has an alternative (i.e., with which IBM has been competing)."

Another poster, "jexenberger," speculated that products in danger could include the GlassFish application server -- which has a counterpart in IBM's WebSphere -- and even commercial support for Sun's open-source MySQL database. "Ugh, now they'll start punting [IBM] DB/2 as the commercial option."

But others predicted a better outcome if IBM buys Sun.

"When I think about how this could impact Java, I can only see positives," said poster James Sugrue. "A company such as IBM could inject more money into Java development. When I think about the company who gave us Eclipse having more of an investment in Java, it's difficult to see any negatives."

And Java architect Fabrizio Giudici pointed out in a blog post that Sun's open-source products have "excellent momentum in their related communities" and the code could be forked into new projects.

"This could mean more (unpaid) work for us at the beginning, but market opportunities often arise when you don't expect," he said.

Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady echoed the notion. While open-source projects do "depend on funded employees ... the fact is that [forking] exists as an option, whereas with a closed-source project, you're just out of luck."

Overall, though, the Sun community should not be terribly concerned that IBM would phase out Sun's software products, according to 451 Group analyst Matt Aslett.

"While the software portfolios overlap this should not be an issue for IBM as the company could use Sun's products to drive revenue generation," he said via e-mail. And since IBM "already has multiple operating systems and databases in its portfolio, enabling customer choice would be the ongoing mantra."

But Forrester Research analyst Jeffrey Hammond said IBM's software division would have "significant challenges" in monetizing Sun's open-source portfolio.

"IBM doesn't sell to developers, they sell to executives," he said via e-mail. "Executives don't make choices when it comes to selecting [open-source] frameworks -- developers do, and our data tells us that."

"IBM also has to reconcile Sun's middleware business model with it's own -- and they are quite different," Hammond added.

Also, IBM's software group is "not structurally set up to monetize an [open-source] support revenue stream model," he said. "I question whether they could meet the customer [service level agreements] required to maintain it."

Finally, IBM's software marketing efforts are decentralized, cutting across multiple brands, and it would be "a challenge to implement the 'closed loop' marketing model that Sun is putting into place to drive [open-source] conversion and adoption at the grass roots," Hammond said.

Ultimately, while a Sun-IBM union will likely be good news for both companies' customers, it likely won't represent any grand new direction for software in general, according to one observer.

Joe Lindsay, vice president of engineering for interactive media firm Brand Affinity Technologies, has worked closely with both Sun and IBM in his 20-year career as a developer, software engineer and IT executive.

He said both companies at one time or another showed innovation in the ways they embraced open-source technologies, and he found value in working with each for different reasons -- Sun for its technology innovations and IBM for its corporate IT discipline.

"In reality, innovation and the direction of IT technology is in the hands of the user community; open-source efforts and innovators at startups are really the drivers of the future; and IBM and Sun abdicated the position of innovators a while ago when it comes to software," he said.

It is unclear, of course, whether a sale will actually occur. An IBM spokesman said Wednesday the company doesn't "comment on rumors and speculation." A Sun spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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