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We are all open source/proprietary now

Open source is a better software model in many ways, but it can also learn from proprietary software.

Reading through a Jane's Strategic Advisory Services report entitled "Open Source Software in Defense Markets" (PDF), I was struck by this passage:

A key trend in the current software and IT environment is the convergence of open source and commercial software approaches. While significant differences do and will continue to exist, both open source and commercial providers are increasingly taking hybrid approaches to providing software and software support.

Some open source providers, such as Red Hat for example, have sought to monetize open source in ways that are not always compatible with long-held open source movement principles and have also created support teams that are in many ways not dissimilar to the commercial software model.

Commercial providers have taken various approaches to "opening up" their software and are either adopting open source solutions or increasingly allowing users to examine and monitor code and provide feedback about this code to support teams directly through established forums.

In other words, we are all hybrid vendors now.

Granted, Microsoft sponsored the research, and may have had an ax to grind in informing some of the research, though Jane's is a reputable defense-focused consulting firm and wouldn't stray far from its findings to appease Microsoft. Regardless, what Jane's writes is true, or largely true: open source and proprietary software are converging.

Open source needs some hook - however mild - to encourage prospects to pay, thereby earning a reasonable return and justifying further open-source development. Proprietary companies, for their parts, are looking to open source as a new distribution channel for their products, plus want to tap into the development benefits open source can afford.

Back in 2003 I thought I was clever when interviewing at Red Hat because my resume declared that I had helped to devise a "mixed-source model" for a former employer. The person interviewing me looked at me blankly and said, "Mixed source? Why?" It was a classic moment, but I failed with what should have been a classic response: "Because, like Red Hat, I think the right business model balances customer freedom with the ability to generate solid returns for shareholders."

Red Hat rightly gets credit for its open-source ethos, but as former Red Hat executive Marc Fleury has long suggested, Red Hat essentially offers a proprietary binary distribution of Linux in Red Hat Enterprise Linux. This doesn't make it evil. It makes it smart. Customers can get around paying for RHEL, if they wish, but when presented with the value and comparative freedom of RHEL, most choose to pay.

We are leaving the land of open source versus proprietary religious dogma. Open source is a better distribution and development model than traditional proprietary software, or can be. But there are benefits to proprietary software, too. Used in conjunction with the customer's best interests in mind but not forgetting the vendor's interest, a hybrid model makes a lot of sense.