Why I’m interested in Open Source

Because its having a distorting effect on the rest of the industry. I’m afraid I don’t buy the argument (nor would I have to, but you get what I mean) that all software should be free, as Richard Stallmann would so dearly like. Any more than I would agree that all music should be free, or indeed that my plumber should pop round tomorrow and fix the dripping bath tap. It’s a laudable goal of course, as is world peace and the nirvanic state where everyone just gets on. But its just not going to happen, because various elements of human nature – good and bad – won’t let it.

To me, and unlike what the “try the latest distro” Linux User cover disk would suggest, open source is far more about commoditisation than diversification. I find it hard to believe that there is a place for new operating systems which try to compete on features – as long as we build systems around the Von Neumann architecture, there have been operating system constructs around since 1969 (that’s Unix, folks) and indeed before to support them. I don’t want to ignore z/OS on the mainframe – but let’s remember its precisely because the engineers of a few decades ago got so much right that they are so full of themselves now. Windows is also fine – its an OS which cuts the mustard, both on the desktop and on the server. Bt half the reason I believe that Vista tripped up, was that it did not offer anything sufficiently compelling to the majority, even if its security and manageability features far surpassed those of Windows XP. Didn’t anybody tell Microsoft how hard it is to make a business case for security and manageability?

So, open source offers a commoditisation route: if something is algorithmically so straightforward now, and its a question of evolving it in line with the hardware, then open source offers the answer. No point in paying for something that is already done. There are several advantages: the source is openly readable, which makes it potentially more future safe than anything proprietary. Development continues, in an evolutionary manner, and is funded and resourced across the community, which also provides a proactive support base. Its a model which gives us the LAMP stack – thats Linux, Apache, MySQL and which every programming language you can think of that starts with P. And there is money to be made – but out of services, not so much the software licensing.

And here’s the kicker. When it was realised that the real money was to be made out of services, that’s what had the biggest impact on the rest of the industry. Red Hat started to rake it in due to the fact that corporations wanted to know they had the same levels of support as with their proprietary application base – a fact which triggered Microsoft’s ill-advised “Get the Facts” campaign. IBM started to recognise the role of F/OSS (free and open source software) as on-ramps onto what were at the time more enterprise-ready platforms – Linux to AIX, MySQL to DB2 and so on. And Oracle just started to buy everybody it could get away with, as it always does.

Meanwhile we have Sun, which came surprisingly late to the party. Sun’s going through an open source epiphany at the moment, which is just dandy – though I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about just how successful they will be. Sun’s heritage with software has been dodgy to say the least – it had a good start with the Catalyst catalogue and a pretty healthy software channel back in the Eighties, but that was in the days when the hardware manufacturers called the shots. Things started going a bit ropey in the early Nineties, when a number of big software plays (developer tools and network management) started to wither on the vine. Java came and should have been Sun’s big success, but the Internet came next and took all the attention away. While Sun was being the dot in dot-com, it forgot to be anything else.

It could be argued, quite successfully I am sure (though I will not try to here), that Sun has turned to Open Source for two reasons. First, it had no other choice, as it was no longer seen as a credible player in the world of proprietary software and it had burned its bridges with the flat-rate licensing deals brought in earlier this millennium. Second, one place Sun does have a growing reputation among its own customers is in services. Today’s open source models are all about building a services revenue stream, and I wish Sun success in that.

In doing so, Sun, IBM and indeed Oracle have embraced open source and integrated it into their business models. There’s one last area of course that open source can be used, and that’s as a competitive weapon – the only major company which is yet to embrace open source in the same way is Microsoft, preferring still to approach open source from the point of view of interoperability, not as an integral part of its software platform. Personally I think this is a mistake, but – let’s be frank, what the bloody hell do I know. Microsoft’s ultimate responsibility is to maximise its shareholder value, just as the rest of the majors. I have no doubt that they have done the maths, just as the others will have done.

Which comes back to the first point. If all software should be free then that’s great, but I don’t see IBM , SAP, Oracle or HP open sourcing any of its core moneymaking platforms. With good reason, from their perspective – its not in their commercial interests to do so. However it is in the commercial interests of some players to knock the competition for being proprietary, even while being quite happy to retain a significant proportion of the proprietary software market for themselves. Its a dangerous strategy – ask any of the bigger companies how they see the impact of open source on their own software base in a few years time, and they’d be hard pushed to give a straight answer. Fortunate for them that this industry has a very short memory, nobody will notice when they change their minds.

It’s all good fun isn’t it. Perhaps that’s the biggest reason why I’m interested in open source: it’s not the software itself, though that appeals to my geeky side; nor particularly wanting to consider the community driven development process, though that is a phenomenon in itself and worthy of attention. Nah – its watching the big guys duke it out in what is in fact a global game of paintball, with all the ducking and diving, short-lived alliances and backstabbings, and where the nature of the code maters little more than the colour of the paint.

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