What’s at stake in Google and Oracle’s copyright dispute over Java isn’t really about the future of open source, as Quentin Hardy seems to argue, but rather about the future of software licensing, period. A pro-Oracle verdict essentially dumps us back into the software Stone Age, an era of arcane software licensing designed to mimic the pre-digital world of physical goods.

The problem for Oracle, however, is that a return to this golden age of fat, margin-laden maintenance contracts is impossible. The cloud, coupled with open source, has killed it, and the future looks like APIs, not software licenses. In such a world, even an ignorant jury won’t be able to turn back the time. We already live in the cloud economy.

In the future when all’s well

This thought struck me while talking with DataStax executive Patrick McFadin at OSCON, an annual gathering of the open source faithful. We were discussing the different flavors of open source licensing (GPL, Apache, etc.), and McFadin made it clear that the future won’t revolve around licensing at all:

We are debating license schemes now as it relates to selling software. Things in our industry are heading to a place where it’s irrelevant. Organizations won’t buy server licenses and deploy them. Developers will use APIs and will be charged by the call or megabyte. The argument of what type of license will disappear as a result.

In other words, in a cloud world the license isn’t the fundamental method we use to interact with software. Rather, it’s the API, which developers invoke programmatically. I like how developer Al Sweigart puts it: “This is a world that demands APIs, not apps. Being limited to the app store’s selection will be insufficient.”

SEE Microsoft Azure doubles its lead over Oracle, IBM (TechRepublic)

And, while Sweigart refers to individual consumer access to APIs (e.g., Facebook data services), it’s much more likely that enterprises will build on APIs. In fact, it’s already happening, with a 2015 IDC survey finding that 70% of US organizations have an API strategy already, and that by 2017, 65% of all US organizations will generate revenue by packaging, brokering, and selling APIs.

Most prominent among the companies pushing this shift away from licenses to APIs and cloud services, of course, is Amazon, with Microsoft also figuring prominently.

Amazon Web Services is API-centric, as Amazon CTO Werner Vogels calls out, likely influenced by Amazon’s own internal policy that everything must be communicated through open APIs. In such a world, gating access to software with long contracts and expensive lawyers is outmoded.

A dying breed

Developers now demand and expect robust APIs, and it would be absurd to expect a court case to stem this irreversible trend toward cloud computing and the APIs that comprise it. Oracle has been struggling to gin up new license revenue as companies flee to open source and cloud competition.

SEE Oracle’s rising open source problem (TechRepublic)

Not that this is merely an Oracle problem, as Redmonk analyst Stephen O’Grady highlights:

[Charging for software is] certainly getting harder for Oracle. And if it’s getting harder for Oracle, which has a technically excellent flagship product, it’s very likely getting harder for all of the other enterprise vendors out there….This is not, in other words, an Oracle problem. It’s an industry problem.

The way forward, however, is not by going backward. Oracle may hope to squeeze Google for a few billion dollars in alleged damages, but it’s damaging itself in far more profound ways by trying to milk the past rather than look to the future. Oracle needs to retool itself as a cloud company, and isn’t helping that cause by fixating on software licenses, be they granted by court order or through its field.

There are signs that Oracle’s strategy of buying up cloud companies is working, but these are predominantly SaaS companies, leaving Oracle still struggling to catch up to AWS and Microsoft in the critical IaaS market.

As such, professor Pamela Samuelson is only half-right when she tells Hardy, “The open source community will heave a huge sigh of relief if Google wins, and will be very worried if Oracle wins.”

Open source will march on but, ironically, by winning the court case Oracle may actually hamper its own efforts to embrace the future, causing all sorts of worry in Redwood Shores.