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Is open source enabling next-gen vendor lock-in?

The Open Source Business Conference offers terrific content, but it may simply be training the proprietary world how to create distribution efficiency sans the freedom found in open source.

This week's Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco surprised me: I thought the content was, on balance, the best it's ever offered.

In part this stems from a new pragmatism that has settled on the commercial open-source world, where we're increasingly striving to solve customers' business problems, not vendors' business-model problems. It shows up in some of the event's discussions--a few of which are captured in Matt Aslett's excellent OSBC synopsis and in Dries Buytaert's OSBC wrap-up.

North Bridge Venture Partners' Michael Skok came up with one of my favorite lines from the conference, as detailed in Aslett's post:

If we have a better product, and it happens to be open source, we're going to win. But it has to be in that order.

The application of open source to business was highly pronounced in the various keynotes, in particular those delivered on the second day of the conference by Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz, Microsoft President of North America Robert Youngjohns, and IBM Vice President of Linux and Open Source Bob Sutor.

Stephen Walli captures the gist of their various presentations and gives the winning ticket to Sutor. As Walli notes, Sutor bucked the trend in the other keynotes to describe open source as "just about business," insisting instead that "it's NOT about business. It's about solving hard problems."

That's a great distinction, and an important reminder.

Microsoft, for its part, asked the open-source community to judge it by its actions. Its actions have hardly been consistent, and many have been destructive of open source as Dana Blankenhorn argues. Still, I'm hopeful that the vocal minority within Microsoft will power the company to more transparent, open communications with the world.

What may be happening, however, is that Microsoft is adopting open-source principles to power the proliferation of SharePoint. As ZDNet's Oliver Marks highlights, it's free to evaluate, offers community-based add-ons, and has widespread distribution via Microsoft attaching a free version to every copy of Windows Server.

SharePoint is quickly becoming Microsoft's next operating system, as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has confirmed, with customers required to use it in conjunction with Microsoft's other software.

It's a one-way street into Microsoft, with a proprietary data repository to make it difficult and expensive to get out. Cisco Systems is fighting back, as is IBM, but few have figured out how to distribute as efficiently as Microsoft. Open source may be the only alternative to Microsoft.

Is this what we can expect the proprietary software world to learn from open source--distribution efficiency but not the freedom that accompanies it in open source? If this is all we get from the new pragmatism in open source, we'll go backward, not forward.

This was the best OSBC ever, with standing room only on the first day, and full sessions throughout. But if the lessons we're learning are simply enhanced ways to lock in customers, we're going in the wrong direction.

Disclosures: I am chair of the Open Source Business Conference and vice president of business development for Alfresco, an open-source competitor to Microsoft SharePoint, which surely factors into my view on SharePoint.

Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.