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Underpants Gnomes take charge

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SugarCon 2008 Sometimes it takes a faker to say it like it is. Taking time out from satirizing alpha-male Larry Ellison and dissing the sainted Ray Ozzie's timelessly clunky Lotus Notes, Fake Steve Jobs - AKA Forbes senior editor Daniel Lyons - got serious for a moment Wednesday as he opened SugarCRM's developer conference.

Turning to Sun Microsystems' $1bn acquisition of MySQL Lyons said: "I like Marten Mickos [MySQL chief executive] a lot, but my fear is that deal means it's the death of MySQL. I don't know they can withstand the kind of sheer incompetence Sun can throw at them."

With the stillbirths and misfires of iPlanet, Sun ONE and StarOffice in Sun's software past, we know what he means.

"They [Sun] are trying to become ground zero for open source," Lyons continued. "They could have done this for years... but they drifted. Their DNA is about proprietary software and serves."

Oh the irony and the accuracy. Just a few hours later, Sun's chief executive Jonathan Schwartz took the SugarCon stage to champion the deal as a way for Sun to sell more, yes, servers and storage - you know, all that stuff developers are well known for buying. Sun will also use MySQL with a bevy of Sun projects like Glassfish and OpenSolaris to deny rivals middleware revenue as start-ups pick the "free" product over competitors' charged-for software.

Problem there of course is that the free stuff has to actually be worth using.

Fortunately, MySQL is worth using as its rocket-powered uptake has proven, which should provide a ready base of developers Sun can support and nurture. According to Schwartz, MySQL gives Sun access to 11 million customers.

Here's the real problem, though, and it's a problem that possibly meant Mickos welcomed Sun's interest having devised volume licensing to try to monetize MySQL. Just a tiny percentage of those 11 million pay for their software.

Being a popular open source software product like MySQL doesn't mean you've got it made. And in this case, support from Sun is most likely to come in the form of flogging the people who employ developers working with MySQL more hardware as it too tries to figure out how to charge for MySQL, to cover its costs.

"Free software requires a server and storage, and that's the business we are pretty interested in," Schwartz said. Oh, and there was something about community, too. "But first and foremost, we are interesting in amplifying the community of MySQL," he said.

If Sun does have a plan for MySQL, it revolves around scalability - the kind of thing Sun does best. "We are going to be scaling MySQL," Schwartz promised. "The problem with MySQL is customers keep saying: 'We want bigger instances.' And that's a great problem to have." Especially if you own a multi-cored chipset and server operating system.

With plenty of enthusiasm but no track record in successfully developing profitable software or of cultivating open source projects outside its own efforts, then Sun is unlikely to be the best home for MySQL as the new owner's end game remains hardware sales. That's doubly true if, as Fake Steve Jobs noted, Sun's strategy for making money from MySQL is coming from the same place as its software strategy of previous years - the playbook of South Park's Underpants Gnomes. ®

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