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Sun dangles cash prizes for open source projects

Still dwarfed by Google

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Sun Microsystems is the latest big name in Silicon Valley to dangle financial baubles before open source developers to stimulate pet projects.

The company today announced it will award annual prizes worth more than $1m for "some of the most interesting initiatives" in six open source projects.

The Open Source Community Innovation Awards Program is open to participants of Sun's GlassFish, NetBeans, OpenJDK, OpenSolaris, OpenSparc and the OpenOffice.org initiative. Winners are to be announced in August 2008, with rules on participation expected next month.

Sun unveiled the program at FOSS.IN/2007 in Bangalore, India. Sun has made much of India, along with China, Russia and Brazil as emerging markets with potential for Java and open source in general.

Simon Phipps, Sun's chief open source officer and ombudsman, wrote: "I'm announcing it in India because that's where I expect the greatest open source community growth to come from in the near future.

"If we can play a part in catalyzing the emergence of India as a key international open source power-house, the effect on the software industry will be huge."

Sun follows Google who - in a sign of how times have changed and who is now the Valley's top dog - last month announced its, far bigger, $10m prize for developers building applications on its Android no phone.

Google is using cash to create an instant ISV community for its platform, circumventing the fact it lags all other handset and telcos in this respect. The same might also be said for Sun, whose projects remain Sun-dominated institutions. It is also unclear to what extent these projects are gaining real traction, as Sun hands out just download numbers and does not have market share stats or information on how its big code giveaway is translating into sales of its software or services.

Sun executive vice president Rich Green shrewdly noted earlier this year the need to compensate developers for their time, to ensure that projects develop. There can be a tendency in open source for good ideas to fizzle out through lack of commitment or, as people swarm around the most interesting features, leaving the boring stuff to "someone else".

JBoss's former chief executive Marc Fleury is also a keen proponent of keeping a paid-team of engineers on the company payroll, rather than relying on the free market to develop open source projects and products.

Whether big-cash prizes are the ticket for Google and Sun, though, is unclear. The history of successful open source and Linux is of projects that emerged through volunteer efforts. Once cash is on the line, there is the risk that people will become less wiling to share ideas or code in order to beat the everyone else, and potentially hurt both community and development.®

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