I was talking on Wednesday with Daniel Tunkelang, chief scientist for Endeca, about potential competition his company faces from open source (e.g., Lucene). In response, Tunkelang made an exceptionally interesting point, which I summarize here:
Open source drives innovation by making yesterday's technology a commodity, forcing proprietary vendors to innovate in order to justify their paychecks.
This got me thinking. Patents are short-term monopolies (20 years) designed to give inventors sufficient time in which to recoup their R&D costs and turn a profit. Open source turns the 20-year patent term into two years, if that. As a relentless, ever-growing competitor, open source keeps the proprietary world in check and on its toes to a degree that the industry has never before seen.
This is an exceptionally positive trend for customers. It means that not only will they save money on core technology that yesterday cost a significant amount, but they also benefit from the rush to innovate by proprietary (and open-source) vendors as they seek to deliver compelling, marketable value.
Today, nearly every software vendor faces increasingly stiff open-source competition. Had this been the case 20 years ago when Microsoft Office was developed, we would likely have far more innovation in office productivity technology than we do today. Ditto for Windows desktop, SAP's ERP system, etc.
Fortunately, we now have open source to shorten the shelf-life of complacency in proprietary software. Vendors may find it uncomfortable, but it's good for them and good for customers by accelerating innovation.