11 November 2009

Why SAP is a Sap

There's some interesting turbulence in the blogosphere about the following call from Dr. Vishal Sikka, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of SAP:

To ensure the continued role of Java in driving economic growth, we believe it is essential to transition the stewardship of the language and platform into an authentically open body that is not dominated by an individual corporation. Java should be free of any encumbrances to permit fair competition between compatible implementations for the benefit of customers. By preserving the integrity of Java, the IT industry can ensure a vibrant developer community and continued innovation for enterprise software customers. This ensures the continued global economic success brought about through open innovation.

Matt Asay rightly calls him out on this:

Irony, thy name is SAP.

SAP, after all, is hardly the most open-source or open-process friendly company on the planet. Despite early involvement in Eclipse, some interaction with MySQL (MaxDB), and a new commitment to the Apache Software Foundation, SAP remains a firmly proprietary company.

Even Microsoft, which arguably has the most to lose from open source, has consistently and continually experimented with greater open-source involvement.

SAP? Not so much. In large part, SAP hasn't been forced to embrace open source because it hasn't been threatened by it. ERP (enterprise resource planning) is such a complex beast that it has remained largely impervious to open source (with the exception of open-source start-ups like Compiere and Openbravo, to which I'm an adviser).

Now, Dirk Riehle is stepping into the fray:

I don’t think that this is a fair critique. SAP has always provided the source code of its main business applications suite to user-customers as part of a commercial license, and users have always customized SAP’s business suite to their heart’s content. In fact, it is the only way to make it work for their needs.

That may well be the case, but I think it's irrelevant.

The real reason SAP's call is hypocritical is this document [.pdf], essentially a love-letter to software patents, submitted as an amicus curiae brief to the European Patent Office. Software patents are simply incompatible with free software, because they are government-granted monopolies designed to *stop* people sharing stuff. They also prevent hackers from writing new code because they represent an ever-present digital sword of Damocles hanging over them.

SAP simply cannot claim to be a true friend of openness while it also supports software patents in any jurisdiction, in any form - the same applies to other companies, too, I should note. They can share as much code as they like, but until they repudiate software patents - for example, by placing their patent portfolios in the public domain - that's little more than window-dressing.

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Anonymous said...

While I am an SAP employee (so my response might be considered biased), and despite that I'm not fully aware of all the legal and openess disputes that my company is involved in, I think that Viskal's blog is still a valid "call for action". By carefully reading what Vishal writes, you will as well find exrept from Oracle's stance on this topic: which is pretty much similar. Instead of calling SAP position "hypocritic" for unrelated reasons, at this point it makes much more sense (for the community) to react and avoid another "hypocracy" to be done, by the companies that have direct control over resolving this question.


Anonymous said...

Obviously, the ONLY reason this has come about is because java is under the control of Sun which belongs to Oracle, their nemesis. Yes, I'd say they DO have a legitimate business concern, and regardless of motivation, they're right, but as they old saying goes: "First they came for the ..." Companies need to start speaking out for open-source and against software patents while there's still somebody besides the big guys (not that SAP is small).

Anonymous said...

They don't have to totally abandon software patents. Doing so would put them at some 'competator's mercy.(like expecting radnom acts of kindness from Vlad the Impaler!)

A better alternative for them would be to join the Free Software Patent Pool.

Though I do agree with you that they should never have supported software patents.

Glyn Moody said...

@anon: you're right, patent pools are an alternative, but the danger is that people think that they're a solution, and they're not: they're a temporary fix.

That why we need more big companies - like SAP, which is European, after all - coming out against them.