The session on Open Source and Web 2.0 was an interview of Mitchell Baker and Jonathan Schwartz by Tim O'Reilly.
By the end of this talk I was pretty stunned by some of the things Jonathan Schwartz said. He sounded like a dot bomb CEO from 1999. If I had any SUNW stock, I definitely would have ditched it after the talk.
Tim O'Reilly began the session by stating that the title of the talk was misleading. He asked for a show of hands how many people used Linux and then for how many people used Google. A lot more hands showed up for Google users than Linux users. Tim said that while people tend to limit their idea of Linux applications to desktop software like the Gimp, Google is probably the most popular Linux app. So the discussion is really about relationship between Open Source and Web 2.0.
Tim began the interview by asking Jonathan Schwartz what he felt was fresh about Sun's Open Source strategy. Jonathan said that the key thing behind Open Source's rise isn't the availability of source code but because it is available for free (as in beer). This is what is so cool about Google, they provide their services online for free which increases their reach. Sun is embracing this notion to increase the usage of its software.
The then asked Jonathan to talk about Sun's grid computing efforts. Jonathan said they recently moved to a self service model for their computing grid. Customers no longer need to sign contracts up front, instead customers just need to go to a webpage on Sun's website and have their credit card ready. Tim O'Reilly commented that customer self service is one of the pillars of Web 2.0. Since Sun moved to this model they have sold out their grid services, primarily to Texas oil & gas companies wanting to run simulations on about Hurricane Rita. Sun's goal is for their grid to target the long tail in which case Stanford college students working on their Ph.D's and the like may become their primary customers.
The previous night Tim O'Reilly had asked Ray Ozzie if he felt new revenue models such as ad-supported Web-based software would make as much money as old revenue models such as selling shrinkwrapped software. Tim continued with this theme by asking Jonathan if he thought that Sun's new revenue model of renting out their grid would bring in as much money as their old model of selling hardware. Jonathan said their internal models show that the grid business will be very profitable for them. At this point Mitchell Baker jumped into the conversation to add that the old models currently suffer from needing a control structure which eats into revenue. Controls such as DRM, anti-piracy measures, EULAs, etc add cost to existing business models and once we move to more open models based on customer self service the savings will be huge.
Tim then asked Mitchell whether she thought that Firefox's trump card was the fact that anyone can modify the application to meet their needs since it is open source and customizable. Mitchell replied that it was less about source code availability and more about the culture of participation within the Firefox community.
Tim then asked Mitchell if she felt that Greasemonkey would be widely adopted. Mitchell said she thought that would be extremely unlikely. She pointed out that the average user already is confused by the difference between their web browser and a web page let alone adding something as complex as Greasemonkey into the mix. I have to agree with Mitchell here, I recently found out that a surprising number of end users navigate the Web by entering URLs into search boxes on various web search engines instead of using the address bar of their browser. The web is already too confusing to these users let alone 'remixing' the Web using applications like Greasemonkey.
A number of times while he was speaking, Tim O'Reilly gave the impression that extensions like Greasemonkey are examples of Firefox's superiority as a browser platform. I completely disagree with this notion, and not only because Internet Explorer has Greasemonkey clones like Trixie and Turnabout. The proof is in the fact that the average piece of Windows spyware actually consists of most of the core functionality of Greasemonkey. The big difference is that Firefox has a community of web developers and hobbyists who build cool applications for it while most of the folks extending Internet Explorer in the Windows world are writing spyware and other kinds of malware.
It isn't the availability of the source that's important. It's the community around the application.
The next question was for Jonathan and it was about the recent announcement between Sun and Google. Jonathan's started by stating that although many people wanted the announcement to be about an AJAX Office suite that wasn't on the horizon. He said the deal was about distribution and communities which are very important. He pointed out that there are a number of widely distributed and near ubiqitous platforms such as Flash and Java which aren't Open Source. Having a wide distribution network with Java deployed on many desktops meant that one could automatically download new applications such as a VOIP client or Toolbar application on any desktop with Java or StarOffice installed. Mitchell jumped in to point out that well-distributed but lousy products don't work. She went on to add that the new distribution model is no longer about being distributed with the OS but instead is powered by word of mouth on the Web. Firefox has gotten 90 million downloads with no traditional distribution mechanisms.
Tim asked Mitchell whether there would be a return to the browser wars of the nineties where Netscape and Microsoft one-upped each other with incompatible, proprietary new features on a regular basis. Mitchell said there were two things wrong with the browser wars in the nineties; the war itself which led to incompatibilities for web developers and Netscape's defeat which led to stagnation of the Web browser. Mitchell said that Firefox will innovate with new features but they plan to ensure that these features will not be incompatible with other browsers or at least will degrade well in them.
Tim asked Jonathan what was behind the thinking that led him to becoming one of the most senior regular bloggers in the technology industry? Jonathan replied that he believes very strongly in community. He felt that developers don't buy things, they join movements. In this case, Sun's transparency is a competitive weapon. This is especially true when they can't compete with $500 million to $1 billion marketing budgets of companies like Microsoft and IBM.
Tim asked whether Jonathan's the blog is always transparent and he never attempts to mislead or provoke. Jonathan said that he definitely provokes but never misdirects. Even then the legal department at Sun doesn't read his entries before he posts them although a bunch of lawyers now have him on their speed dial and often ask him to include disclaimers in his posts.
Tim then asked Mitchell whether the large number of Google employees working on Firefox caused problems since the company is notoriously secretive. Mitchell responded by pointing out that there are people from lots of different companies working on Firefox, it's just that the Google folks get the most press. All the Google folks are still active on the core of the browser and they know that anything that goes into the core must be open for discussion. She stated that if they began to be secretive about code that would be shipping in the core of the browser then they'd be asked to put those changes in extensions instead.
The questions ended and the Q & A session began. I asked a question each of Mitchell and Jonathan.
My question for Mitchell was that given that the rise of AJAX is primarily because Firefox copied the XMLHttpRequest from Internet Explorer, was there a policy of keeping abreast of innovations in IE. "Not always", was Mitchell's answer. On the one hand they did copy XMLHttpRequest but on the other hand they didn't clone ActiveX even though they took a lot of heat for not doing so. given all the security woes with ActiveX she felt that in retrospect they had made the right decision.
My question for Jonathan was why he dismissed the idea of an AJAX Office suite earlier during the talk. Jonathan said he thought that in some cases not every application transferred well to the Web as an AJAX application. He gave examples of Firefox and Photoshop as applications that wouldn't make sense to build as AJAX applications.
Another member of the audience asked what Sun had learned from Netscape's open sourcing of Mozilla in their efforts. Jonathan replied that everything Sun produces from now on will be Open Source. He encouraged companies to join the Open Source community since he saw no down side. His goal was to get as wide a distribution as possible and then figure out how to give value to their shareholders after that.