A couple of weeks back, Sun Microsystems created a buzz in the tech world when it announced its decision to release their flag ship language Java under a GPL license albeit GPL v2. But even though it could have surprised and gladdened the Free Software fans the world over, it is clear that it was a well calculated, deeply thought out decision which was aimed at the survival and further propagation of the Java language.
It is true that at its core, Sun is a hardware company with the bulk of its revenue being generated from selling high end servers, workstations and storage solutions. But it has also invested heavily in developing robust software. And what is amusing is that it does not charge anything for most of the software it has developed and has been providing it free of cost. OpenOffice.org, Netbeans, Java and Solaris being a case to the point.
At one time, Solaris was the most popular Unix operating system enjoying a huge market share, greater than even IBM AIX and HP-UX combined. Then Linux arrived at the horizon and slowly started chipping away at the market share of all the Unixes including Solaris. With Linux gaining demi god status, it was inevitable that Sun take a deep look at itself. It realized that if it did not re-structure its thinking, it will be reduced to a mere hardware company like Dell selling boxes, from its present status as an IP creator. And it has shown enough foresight to change with changing times. Instead of fighting Linux, it started bundling Linux - more specifically Red Hat Linux with its servers along side its own operating system Solaris. And over an year back, it released the Solaris code under an open license and named it OpenSolaris.
Now Sun is going even further by hinting that it is seriously considering releasing Solaris under a GPL license. A few years back, the PCs that were sold did not meet the minimum requirements for running Solaris which made it a difficult proposition to run it as a desktop. But with rapid advances made in the hardware field, a drastic drop in hardware prices and partly thanks to Microsoft for upping the ante with regard to minimum memory requirements for running Vista, it has suddenly become possible to look at Solaris as a viable desktop OS alternative as it works smoothly with just 512 MB RAM.
Taking all these events into consideration, Sun is doing everything in its power to ensure that the fruits of its hard work lives on and gains in popularity. A few days back when I visited Sun's website, I was surprised to see a link offering to send a free DVD media kit consisting of the latest build of Solaris 10 and Sun Studio 11 software to the address of ones choice. I have always believed that one of the reasons for Ubuntu to gain so much popularity was because of its decision to ship free CDs of its OS. Perhaps taking a leaf from Ubuntu, Sun has also started shipping free DVDs of Solaris 10 OS to anybody who want a copy of the same - a sure way of expanding its community.
In the long run, the logical thing for Sun to do will be to release Solaris under GPL. By doing so, Sun would gain the immense good will of the Free Software fans the world over and ensure a permanent place in the history of computing. Unlike GNU/Linux which is a loose amalgamation of scores of individual software pieces around the Linux kernel, Solaris is a whole product whose tools are tightly integrated with its kernel. So even if Solaris is released under GPL, it may not see as many distributions as we see in Linux. And who is better qualified to provide services and support for Solaris other than Sun itself?