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Byy  Sylvia Carr

MySQL CEO Marten Mickos is unsurprised by the recent rise of commercially viable open-source companies such as his own.

<“I wonder: Why didn’t this happen sooner?” he said to in a recent interview.

Though Mickos has a long-held belief that open source is the superior software development model, it’s taken the rest of the world time to catch up.

But catch up they have, if the open-source database company’s sales figures are any indication. Revenues doubled from 2002 to 2003 and look set to double again this year, with the company expecting a total of $18m to $20m.

Officially headquartered in Sweden, the company has grown rapidly to around 160 employees, one-third of whom are in the US with the rest spread out across the world.

Mickos attributed the success of the MySQL database – with five million installations worldwide and 35,000 downloads per day – in part to the fact open-source development inherently creates better products than the proprietary model because “developers take more pride in their work” when it’s available for public scrutiny.

When it comes to security, open source is also a benefit because “it allows you to get help from the good guys… and I believe there are more good guys than bad guys out there”.

Though MySQL’s products are available for free under the GNU Public License (GPL), it’s a real business. “We’re as greedy as anyone else,” Mickos said. My SQL makes money by selling commercial licences to businesses that want full-service treatment, want to use MySQL in a commercial product, and by charging for support.

This dual licence approach works because “it lets the world decide” how they want to use the software, said Mickos.

Another key to MySQL’s ascent – and a selling point to CIOs considering running critical applications on an open-source product – is the fact MySQL owns all the source code and audits any contributions before adding them to the existing code base.

Mickos’s involvement with MySQL dates back to the 1980s, when the company’s founders – Swedes David Axmark and Allan Larsson and Finn Michael ‘Monty’ Widenius – began working on the project. Mickos, also Finnish and a personal friend of theirs, told the founders to give up because they were wasting their time. In 1997, though, Mickos had to eat his words when he sent Monty an email saying: “Hey, you’ve gotten some traction.” By 2001 he believed enough in the cause to become the company’s CEO.

It’s no wonder he advised his friends against entering the database market. Going head-to-head with the likes of Oracle, IBM and Microsoft – which, combined, own over 80 per cent of the space – is a daunting task.

But Mickos hardly sounds intimidated. “They should be concerned about us,” he said of his rival Oracle.

Taking a less assertive tone, he explained the competition is not as direct as some may think: “We’re taking business from Oracle they never should have had.”

While Oracle boasts database features not available in its open-source counterpart, MySQL focuses on the core functions most often used.

Mickos likened MySQL to furniture maker Ikea. Both have solid, affordable, no-frills products they’ve found a way to efficiently distribute. The Oracles and IBMs, then, are the antique furniture makers.

“Ikea doesn’t worry about antique furniture makers,” he said.

My SQL is particularly well suited for websites, its most popular use, according Mickos, with big name customers such as Yahoo! and Google using the database for their sites. MySQL is also used in embedded environments, for in-house enterprise tasks as well as in retail, manufacturing, governments and universities. Because of its diverse uses its customers range from the telecoms space (Vodafone, Ericsson) to IT (Hewlett-Packard, Texas Instruments) to media outlets (Associated Press, Time).

UK firms overall have been relatively conservative in their uptake of open-source products such as MySQL, according to Mickos, but stalwarts such as banks Dresdner Kleinwort Wassertein (DrKW) and LloydsTSB have been convinced to come aboard.

Perhaps it is MySQL’s European ties – Germany its number two market after the US, plus those Scandinavian roots and international workforce – that make the company so eager to fight the adoption of software patents in the EU and to join the industry campaign

“They’re bad for innovation. They’re costly. And they have many negative effects,” Mickos said of software patents. “The only group they’re good for is lawyers.”

Those negative effects, he explained, include decreased competition as the cost of defending oneself against infringement claims could put young companies out of business.

While he maintains ownership of ideas is important, patenting software is wrong because it’s very hard to describe exactly what you are patenting and thus hard to prove someone has violated it. “Software should be considered more like literature or art,” he said, comparing the process of patenting software to patenting a combination of musical notes.

In the future, said Mickos: “All databases will be open source.” But he doesn’t necessarily think they should all use the dual-licensing model MySQL employs. Some might be better to concentrate on just services and support.

He also doesn’t think open source is necessarily the right approach for all software projects, especially ones who want to keep secret competitive advantages such as the algorithms they’re using in the code.

A private company funded by venture capital since 2001, Mickos said an IPO may be in store for the company down the road but was quick to point out they don’t see a float as an endgame. “We want to change the market,” he said. “We want to build a long-term, successful business.”