The451 - Will Borland let InterBase go?

By John Abbott

As featured in the 451,
Reprinted here with permission.

San Francisco - The next few weeks will be crucial to the survival of InterBase Software, the database spin-off from Inprise Borland. Or at least the hopeful spin-off because, so far, Interbase hasn't yet managed to separate itself from its parent, and consequently hasn't been able to turn its code over to the open source community, as it said it would at the start of this year.

InterBase's community of developers and customers, including recently-signed OEM Cobalt Networks, are getting frustrated. They are hoping to hear Inprise's interim CEO Dale Fuller agree to set InterBase free at Monday's annual shareholders meeting. If not, insiders say that some of the key members of the InterBase team may just walk away from the whole project. Official sources aren't ready to comment yet, although they say that Inprise is putting together an official announcement for this Wednesday.

Why does InterBase matter? Advocates say there's a real need now for a solid open source database for Linix. The current contenders, MySQL and PostgresSQL, aren't commercial-grade products, while InterBase has been on the market since 1985 and runs on NT and Solaris, as well as Linux. It's also got the right characteristics - easy to maintain, simplified deployment, small footprint - for use as an embedded database. In other words, it's a database that can be integrated within other applications - invisible itself, but acting as a crucial underpinning.

However, if the original development team breaks apart and Inprise itself loses interest, InterBase will enter the growing category of open source abandonware. Without a dedicated recourse to push development and marketing, it will go the same way as the other open source databases.

Some history is needed. Originally an independent company, InterBase was acquired over the course of a few years by Ashton Tate, which was itself swallowed up by Borland in the early '90s. As a high-end database, it always fitted somewhat uneasily at Borland among the PC-oriented Xbase database products such as Visual dBase (now open source itself). Boeing, Motorola, Nokia and the US army are among its largest users.

When Inprise/Borland decided to exit the database market in 1999, InterBase looked doomed. And at the end of the year, five of the key development tools quit the company, having been told that research and development budgets were to be cut. Within the course of a month, staff at the database unit is said to have dwindled from 40 to around five. But then Fuller responded to suggestions that InterBase be released as open source. He announced the intention to do so in January this year, challenging other database companies to do the same. The move encouraged Ann Harrison, codeveloper of the original InterBase, along with founding architect Jim Starkey, to take on the role of president of a proposed new InterBase spin-off. Starkey agreed to act as software advisor, and Paul Beach re-joined as VP of sales and marketing. The team began getting the next release, InterBase 6, ready for shipment, and also started working on a new set of deals to help jumpstart the company's relaunch.

By June, all should have been in place. But according to insiders, legal delays in sorting out the separation have held things up. Two crucial dates were missed. The first was the recent Borland Developer's Conference, where 5,000 CDs of InterBase 6 were ready for distribution, but couldn't be released. The second was Cobalt's launch of the RaQ 4r, which uses InterBase as its default system. Frantic, last-minute negotiations allowed the launch to go ahead, but Cobalt only has agreements to use the system for 180 days - further use beyond then is dependent on InterBase becoming a separate entity, say sources.

It's not clear if it's just a long-winded legal process or something else that has held things up. At the end of June, Fuller and Harrison issued a joint statement on the situation: "The reason for the delay was neither code cleanup nor any lack of direction or effort on anyone's part. Simply put, separating one division from a company is a difficult process." Separately, Fuller assured the451 that an announcement was due "any day."

But what will the nature of the announcement be? The spin-off was originally looking to acquire the licenses, trademarks, copyrights and patents of InterBase for a sum thought to be around $6m, payable over two years. Inprise was offering a $2m investment from its internal venture fund. The core InterBase team would be re-hired before they disperse. But if a separation can't be negotiated, then the InterBase code might be turned over to the open source community under the Inprise banner. Without an internal champion within Inprise, that's unlikely to be an effective strategy.