Monday, October 03, 2005

Open Source - Who's doing it and why?

In my last post I discussed the effects of open source software on the Java community. In my opinion, Java was a reaction to a perception by many in the software industry that unless something was done that Microsoft would end up owning both the desktop and the server. If this was to happen, then in time Microsoft would be sure to use its dominant position to shut out other Server Software Vendors. After all, this is exactly what they did with Lotus, WordPerfect and others on the desktop.

As a consequence Sun, Oracle, IBM et al got together and agreed that the Java VM would be "the common means of passage" on the server. Cross-platform, Machine independent, OS-neutral and with open APIs, Java would fend off Microsofts' attempts to own the Server.

Interestingly Java has become a run away train, no longer under the control of the vendors. The developer community have taken the open Java APIs and crafted tools and APIs of their own, all open source. So who owns Java now? Well it appears to me that the open source community are in the driving seat.

So who are the open source community? Well things have changed a bit from the days of Richard Stallman. It appears that many open source projects have big backers. The Mono project, a .NET clone is backed by Novell, and IBM backs Eclipse (the leading Java IDE). Linux has become an open source phenomena in it's own right, with backers such as Sun, Oracle and most of the big players. The only large player not to be some how involved in open source is Microsoft.

Open source has become a viable business model for many. Look at Skype which was recently sold for billions. A less dramatic open-source business model is to offer consulting and bespoke variants on the back of an open source product. It seems that different people are involved in open source for different reasons.

I have always thought that their should be a "common means of interaction" in software, much like language or law in society. This common base should be freely available to everyone and owned by no one. This seems to be exactly what we're now getting in Software.

But why are the vendors backing it? One argument is that producing software open source is cheaper. True, but you can't sell it. I've read an article that suggest that open source is being used as a means of wrestling market share from the incumbent monopoly (Microsoft). It is difficult even for a monopoly to compete with something that is free. Once the free software becomes the de-facto standard (70-80% market share), a new market is available where the backers of the open source product can sell consultancy services and add-ons. I believe this is already happening with Linux.

For example, I wonder how many Oracle licenses have been sold under Linux. Now without the success of Linux, what percentage of those licenses would have gone to SQL Server under Windows? Most right.

If this strategy is true, then this sounds like a dangerous game for the vendors, as they are sure to loose control in the same way that they have lost control of Java. And in a world where customers feel empowered to pick and choose their own software without vendor endorsement, innovation and new ideas could quickly leave the vendors flat footed. Look at the emergence of Ruby on Rails.

Anyway I'm going to get myself a good book on open source. I think it's time I took the open source movement a lot more seriously.

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