The Oh-So-Practical Magic of Open-Source Innovation

A conversation with MySQL chief Marten Mickos about the day-to-day realities of making open source work, the new outcomes of enlightened self-interest, and why there’s no risk that you could rip off MySQL no matter how much they let you see.

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There are 12 million reasons why Marten Mickos isn’t afraid that his rivals in the database software industry will ever overtake him. “Let them try,” he says brazenly of his competitors. “Our secret is in the way we operate our culture, and I’m convinced others cannot imitate that.”

Culture is too vague a word. Mickos is referring to the fact that MySQL AB, the business he has built since 2001, has committed itself to “open-source” innovation since its founding in 1995 — with results successful enough that Sun Microsystems Inc. acquired what is the world’s fastest-growing database vendor earlier this year for $1 billion. Like such well-known proponents as Linux, the operating system, and Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, MySQL shares its source code for free, giving programmers everywhere permission to debug, add features or otherwise modify the product before redistributing it. (MySQL , whose high-profile customers include Facebook and Google, makes money by selling commercial licenses and by offering support and services.) MySQL’s collaborative community now consists of 12 million coders, who typically receive compensation that amounts to — in today’s dollars — nothing at all. Mickos, a native of Finland, works in the company’s offices in Cupertino, California. He first met the company’s cofounders when they were all students (and avid poker players) at the Helsinki University of Technology.

Here Mickos, now a senior vice president at Sun, talks with Josh Hyatt for the MIT Sloan Management Review, freely sharing his ideas about why this Internet-age version of a barn-raising produces superior innovation, what murky motivations keep all those developers devoted and why Leonardo da Vinci is the father of the open-source movement.

Why would a company like MySQL choose to give away the guts of its product — was it just a desperation move by its founders to differentiate it from its rivals?

MICKOS: Interestingly, the whole company was started by the founders writing the product code themselves, so it’s not like there was a big smorgasbord of contributions from many people. They were thinking of a closed-source product. Then one of the founders saw a presentation about open source and convinced the others that this was the way the world was going to go. That was in the first year, 1995.

Did sharing the source code generate outside contributions right away?

MICKOS: You need a good user base before you start getting contributions.


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