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Whither hardware?

The only uncertain part here is how far Oracle really wants to become a hardware company. Despite all that bravado of Oracle becoming a hardware company with last year's Exadata and database machine, the devices are actually built by HP.

For Oracle to become a genuine hardware business would be like getting a super tanker to change course. Oracle is a software business. Oracle could run Sun's systems business to manufacture those Exadata and database machines, and build bigger and better database and storage systems for customers such as telcos and banks.

Oracle president Safra Catz promised on Monday that Oracle would turn Sun's systems business into a profitable operating unit within Oracle. But long-term? Has Oracle really become a hardware company? Why not just continue to partner with HP, especially since hardware is a notoriously less profitable business than software? The strategy must be to return Sun's systems business to profitability - but only to then sell it at a greater profit.

The final casualty of this deal will be some of the daring thinking that Schwartz and Sun introduced to enterprise software in the early days of his tenure as senior vice president for Sun's software business. Sun adopted ideas of paying by company or individual on a subscription basis, to make big systems more affordable and - gasp - fairer.

OK, Sun was pushing software nobody really wanted and coming from behind in a middleware market it had already lost - it had to offer something new. But such ideas got people thinking, and helped contribute to fresh approaches to charging for enterprise infrastructure that you see today.

Such ideas have no place at Oracle. One of the first things that Oracle does when it acquires a company is increase the price of that company's software. Customers of MySQL should look out, as should - incidentally - licensees of Java.

Oracle is a company many in Silcon Valley simultaneously admire and hate. It's seen as a success because of the way it's run. But the way it's run is seen as arrogant and a blot on both independence and innovation. The focus on process and pursuit of growth has turned Oracle into a company that buys and integrates other people's technologies into the non-stop express that is Oracle.

Unless there's been a radical shift of thinking at Oracle - a shift away from pure profit and away from performance and process and towards experimentalism - then you will see a radical shake-up for Sun and its products. For some products and units this will mean improved management and the ability to make money for their owner. For others, it'll be the end of the line.

It'll be hard, too, to see where those fellows and big thinkers such as Java father James Gosling, XML co-inventor and languages expert Tim Bray, or crypto authority Whitfield Diffie will fit. Sun's academic culture promoted tinkering, thinking, and experimenting. Oracle is business first and focused on integrating a lot of moving parts, and not on innovating or breaking new ground in computing, languages, or security. Again, unless there's a change, the big thinkers that Sun prized as its brain trust are likely to take their leave.

but the biggest casualty will be the loss of a corporate-sized backer of open source that - thanks to its failures in middleware and history in creating Java - advocated open systems over traditional vendor lock-in.

Sun liked to brag about how much code it had contributed to open source over the years. Oracle, though, has never made such lofty claims. Instead, it's used open source to advance its business or to try to close down the competition.

Open source will continue at Oracle - along with Java. It could even profit. Just don't expect it to help anybody else. ®

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