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How SpringSource is taking on Java Goliaths

It's a common myth that open source can't innovate, but open-source Java company SpringSource proves that open source can lead an industry, not follow it.

Some argue that open-source software can't innovate. In fact, one of the industry's former executives, Peter Yared, recently argued that "the only successful open-source companies sell commodities."

Yared clearly hasn't heard of SpringSource, an open-source application platform provider that is redefining the J2EE application server and, quite possibly, the future of open source.

Yared isn't alone in his beliefs. A friend recently wrote me to suggest that open source is at its best when disrupting big, profitable markets:

Commercial open source is a (commodity) replacement market. When it is not (i.e., people are building new, never-done-before cool/future-proof apps with open-source technology), then it is a pure-play Internet-based business model, one that is becoming so specific/demanding that people will want full control and (to) develop their own stuff, e.g., Google, Facebook, and others that heavily use open source to build their Web services.

SpringSource and its ubiquitous Spring Framework, however, promise something different. Something much more ambitious. Not only does Spring challenge the status quo in application development, deployment, and management (Hyperic), but SpringSource is proving that commercial open source can peacefully coexist with community involvement.

In a conversation with Spring creator and SpringSource founder Rod Johnson, he clarified SpringSource's competitive differentiation:

The essence of SpringSource is that we're not a commodity play but have a far more ambitious agenda. We're not interested in replicating what closed-source vendors already offer, at lower price: We are providing a superior experience to developers and operations teams--for example, in our integrated approach to unifying the application life cycle from developer desktop to the data center--which doesn't presently exist in Java.

Of course, our offerings are also leaner (more productive and faster), cheaper and more open than those of the old incumbents, and that's a huge selling point in today's market. But we're focused on being the enterprise Java leader--and not merely in open source.

SpringSource's mantra: Managing the full Java life cycle. SpringSource

SpringSource isn't simply replacing IBM WebSphere, Oracle WebLogic, or Red Hat JBoss application servers. It is actually doing much more, and it offers, in my opinion, the best example of just how disruptive an open-source vendor can be precisely because SpringSource isn't seeking to be the open-source leader in Java, but the leader, period.

Gartner estimates that there are currently at least 2 million Spring developers, an impressive number suggesting that the Java community is looking to Spring to help it migrate Java applications onto lighter-weight containers (Tc Server), across highly virtualized environments, and ultimately to the cloud. Given SpringSource's strong financial performance, the company seems to be doing a good job of monetizing a significant percentage of that Spring adoption.

After meeting with the SpringSource executive team at its San Mateo, Calif., offices a few weeks ago to discuss its strategy, I'm convinced that the company is on track to improve that percentage significantly too.

We're at the point when it's not enough to be "the Red Hat of (CRM, ECM, ERP, etc.)." In a bad economy that sees open-source solutions adopted at an ever-increasing pace, now growing at a 22 percent CAGR (compound annual growth rate), according to IDC, it's time for open-source vendors to lead and develop markets, not simply follow in the wake of established proprietary vendors, picking up their crumbs.

SpringSource is demonstrating how it can be done. It's an aggressive company with the finances, management, and product ambition to become a very big player in enterprise IT within just a few short years. It's a company that Microsoft should fear and that Oracle or IBM should buy.

Of course, SpringSource being SpringSource, it might actually be planning to buy Oracle or IBM instead.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.