Open source: All about vendors?

Customers don't care about open source, but they do care about the benefits that it provides their vendors.

Whether you're an enterprise or a consumer, ultimately your big concern in buying technology is "Will it do what I want it to do?" Sometimes components matter, but most people most of the time just want something that works.

Open source inside, but do you care?
Gartner's consistently engaging Brian Prentice suggests this is already happening with open-source software. Vendors care about it because open source gives them high-quality, low-cost components with which to build solutions for customers. Customers may notice the lower price tag, but they don't invest much thought into why the price is lower.

I'm going to assume that at some point over the last 20 years you bought a car. So, how important was the car maker's use of just-in-time manufacturing to your purchase decision? I'm going to go out on a limb here and say it was of no consideration at all.

Well, I think we're fast approaching the point where open source to software will be like JIT to automotive manufacturing. While it will critical to the producers of software, woven into the fabric of its operations, it will be of no importance at the point of consumption.

As hard as this might be to accept, open source is not a value proposition in its own right.

As hinted above, this is mostly true. Customers do care about the things that open source offers (lower cost, higher quality, etc.). But they probably don't recognize (or care) that these benefits stem from open source, per se.

Consider the Web. Open-source software provides the fundamental building blocks for nearly all Web services like Facebook, Amazon, etc., not to mention the infrastructure for public and private clouds.

End customers aren't asking for open source on the Web or in the cloud. They're asking for well-managed services that solve their problems. It's the vendors who care, because it allows them to grow highly scalable businesses at a modest cost.

Indeed, many of the customer benefits of open source (i.e., the ability to view, modify, and redistribute code) disappear or get muted on the Web and in the cloud. This hasn't stopped customers from buying into the Web/cloud.

Red Hat may disagree. It's apparently betting that customers care about components in the cloud. Why else would Red Hat Enterprise Linux pricing be much more expensive than Windows on Amazon EC2, despite being much cheaper for on-premises deployments, as IBM's Savio Rodrigues finds?

But I suspect Red Hat will need to change its pricing, as the OS is even more commoditized in the cloud than it has been for on-premises deployments. Both Red Hat and Microsoft will race to the bottom in pricing, with the emphasis being on the applications that run on them.

After all, this is the thing that drives customers' purchasing decisions. Red Hat knows this, which is why it (rightly) makes a big deal of the huge ecosystem of applications that run on RHEL.

In the cloud, even more attention is focused on service that customers use. Open source, in such a world, is essential infrastructure, but it's infrastructure that every vendor shares or will soon share, making the battle all about end-user facing applications, and not about developer-facing open-source components.

This is a very good thing. It means we can get back to focusing on solving customer problems, rather than fetishing and battling over open-source licenses. It's about time.

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Tech Culture
About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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