It occurred to me today that open-source infrastructure providers (e.g., commercial providers of open-source operating systems, databases, application servers, etc.) may have much in common with telecommunications infrastructure providers (like cable, wireless, etc. providers).
Everyone uses their stuff, and generally at a rate that doesn't quite match the value of the benefits derived from it.
Early on we pay a premium for broadband Internet or support for still-buggy but cheaper open-source software. Over time it becomes commodified and our willingness to pay decreases.
What's a company to do?
In the wireless world, Sun is telling its telecommunications customers to look to applications to drive revenue growth. It's very possible that this same advice applies to open-source infrastructure providers.
Maybe Canonical will never make much money from Ubuntu. Perhaps Ubuntu becomes the cloud platform on which Canonical enables all sorts of value-added services?
Maybe MySQL need not directly monetize its database. Perhaps it becomes the hub of a wide array of applications that run on top of it, as its proprietary peer, Oracle, is doing?
Maybe Red Hat is looking backward rather than forward in trying to mine its Linux business for the next billion. Perhaps the way forward is to completely lobotomize Microsoft's Windows cash machine by making enterprise-grade Linux 100 percent free, and charging for the applications that run on top?
Maybe. The problem with each suggested scenario is that infrastructure expertise doesn't always translate into application expertise. (Perhaps one reason that Apple, not AT&T, came up with the iPhone.)
Still, if we look at the industry today, the most profitable new technology company is Google: An infrastructure company that doesn't "do" infrastructure, but rather applications that run on its infrastructure.
Perhaps MySQL's/Ubuntu's/Red Hat's/etc. futures are to be more like Google, less like Microsoft?