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The case for the open-source Goliath

Open source is doing well. But to thrive, commercial open-source software may need a Goliath or two to provide exits and funding for start-ups.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Despite the broad and deep trend toward open-source software, it's telling that Red Hat remains the only large, pure-play open-source vendor.

Without a strong, standalone open-source leader, will commercial open source endure?

The obvious answer is yes, but there are reasons to think that the industry would benefit from a billion-dollar open-source company. Actually, several.

It might seem counterintuitive to suggest that open source, which by its very nature tends to be decentralized and bottom-up in its growth, would benefit by concentrating wealth in a few hegemons.

David is nice, but the fact is that Goliath generally wins.

Open source needs a few more of these.

Take baseball, for example. The New York Times on Monday reported on the importance of the spending power of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox to the overall strength of the American League. A rising tide may raise all boats. But in the case of baseball, a few dominant teams force the rest of the league to follow suit or die, a curse/blessing that the National League doesn't share.

The stronger Red Hat is, by analogy, the better-positioned it is to set the pace of spending and innovation for other open-source companies.

The same is true in football, i.e. soccer. "Soccernomics" traces the importance of the Manchester Uniteds, Arsenals, and Real Madrids for pulling in fans: fans flock to watch the big teams, either to cheer for them or against them. The prospect of cheering on Hull City to best Bolton simply isn't that appealing.

In a similar manner, Red Hat serves as a beacon for would-be open source buyers. It may be hard to get excited about buying into No-Name Open-Source Vendor X, but buying from an established brand-name vendor like Red Hat? Much more appealing.

The problem, however, is that Red Hat is still a minnow in the global software pool, and its fixed focus on baseline infrastructure leaves it ill-equipped to lead the open-source market. Most open-source start-ups simply don't need Red Hat to thrive, and they derive little value from a partnership with the company.

A lot of companies make money in the shadow of Microsoft. Not so in Red Hat's.

Nor is Red Hat a viable exit for most open-source companies. Google, IBM, and others actively contribute to open-source projects--and arguably contribute even more to the continued health of the commercial open-source ecosystem by offering healthy exits for open-source start-ups.

Tim O'Reilly called out this phenomenon years ago when he suggested that the likely exit for most open-source companies would be acquisitions by proprietary software vendors. This is good for the open-source companies, but it may not be good for open source.

It would be ideal to have a large open-source applications vendor, but it's unlikely we'll get one anytime soon, particularly since successful open-source companies keep getting swallowed by proprietary vendors before they can crack the $100 million mark, much less than $1 billion mark.

It's also possible that we don't need IBM-sized, pure-play open-source companies. After all, we have IBM and its ilk already funding open source.

It's equally likely that getting to such a size with a pure-play open-source model simply isn't possible.

But I think we need a few open-source hegemons, companies that can offer a clear alternative to Oracle and Microsoft for both buyers looking for open-source software solutions and vendors looking for open-source software partners. Such hegemons can also help to fund the growth of the next generation of open-source innovation.

But from where will they come? I'm not sure. Your thoughts, please.