The Guppy and the Whale

Bigger is not always better, unless it is.
Whenever possible, I shop at independent businesses. I buy bagels from a fourth-generation baker and his son, the fifth-generation baker; my pharmacy has been family-owned and- operated since the 1920’s; my local comic shop guy automatically pulls books by my favorite writers and artists; and the only person I trust with my car has a work ethic that’s positively old-fashioned. For example, dings and dents get repaired perfectly and my entire car gets detailed at no extra charge.
In each instance, every transaction is an investment in each other and in the local community, as opposed to just a sale, and it’s nice to be recognized. But I also support “mom and pop shops” because, at heart, I always want the little guy to win. Or, in this day and age, to at least stay alive and remain independent. Certainly, some of my bias is purely selfish (I love my baker’s raisin danish), but I also take greater comfort in seeing individual successes and proof that a person can still “earn a good living,” as our parents used to say.
So, given my proclivity for “small is better,” I am a little worried about Oracle’s acquisition of SleepyCat Software. I can’t help but picture the purchase as a whale swallowing a guppy, or more cynically, as Applebee’s purchasing and managing Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse. (SleepyCat is a Berkeley institution, too, by the way.)
On the one hand, Oracle could act like a rich uncle, infusing the endeavor with much-needed capital to expand, and otherwise remains hands-off. On the other hand, well, the options range from unpleasant to downright unsettling. The code becomes proprietary; development becomes bogged down; or worse, the original developers up and leave. Has something “pure” become corrupt? Is the acquisition yet another sign of the apocalypse?
(To try and allay my fears, I contacted Rex Wang, SleepyCat’s Vice President of Marketing and my longtime contact at the company, but he towed Oracle’s party line: “SleepyCat’s employees are now Oracle employees. Read the press release.” Uh, thanks.)
And what about the bigger picture? Will Oracle’s acquisition spark bidding wars for other open source gems? MySQL AB evidently got an offer from Oracle, too, and even a week later, chatter suggests that JBOSS, Inc. remains in play. Will Nagios get snapped up? Or Xen Source? Will IBM accelerate efforts to purchase Zend? Moreover, are acquisitions anathema to open source? Like so many local businesses, can open source projects afford to be successful?
Ultimately, I think we will see more acquisitions of successful open source projects. SleepyCat is just the first of many that will reap recognition and, yes, cash for the oodles of hard work and sacrifice that created a successful business. As SleepyCat — and Trolltech, JBOSS, and MySQL AB — has shown, profits and open source are not oxymorons. Open source is a development model, not a business plan.
Surely, an acquirer needs to tread carefully so as to not disrupt the good faith and community that a project has garnered — after all, that’s where much of the value of open source is derived. Indeed, it would be wise for a new parent company to further what works and spend the dollars to fix what’s broken. Ideally, the acqusition is an expansion not a consolidation.
Well, instead of fretting, I suppose congratulations are in order. SleepyCat is your local neighborhood software vendor that made good. And the company did it the old-fashioned way: they earned it.

Martin Streicher is the Editor-in-Chief of Linux Magazine.

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