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Is open source old news?

Open source may be more relevant than ever, even as it fades from public discourse.

I was supposed to attend the recent DLA Piper Technology Leaders Summit, but was unable to do so due to work and family commitments. Perhaps I should take heart, however, as after reading through JasperSoft CEO Brian Gentile's commentary on the day, I may not have liked what I heard.

Gentile doesn't suggest that the summit was poorly organized or that the speakers didn't have the right pedigrees, but rather that the summit apparently broke little or no new ground. I don't fault the conference organizers for this: I fault the chosen participants, who don't get paid to innovate.

Take Ray Ozzie, for example. Microsoft's job is simple: extend its desktop dominance for as long and as profitably as it can. That's it. Anything the company says about the Web or something disruptive invariably must tie it to its existing cash cows, Windows and Office.

It's little wonder, then, that Microsoft's biggest "innovation" of the past few years is not the Surface, but is rather a content-management system called SharePoint that (gasp!) lets users connect Office documents through Windows Server(s). Microsoft has made well over $1 billion from this invention, and will undoubtedly mint billions more. No, Microsoft has nothing new to tell us.

What about the cloud vendors? This group basically consists of next-generation Microsofts that hope to do what Microsoft did, except instead of distributing packaged software they hope to centrally manage software so that customers will have even less choice than under the Microsoft regime.

Where can I buy some of that?

Where was open source in this discussion and throughout the summit? Open source, which enables the cloud and promises to topple the monopolies of yore while unwittingly enabling the monopolies of the future?

Apparently it was largely ignored until Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of Sun, took the podium. Of Schwartz's presentation Gentile writes:

Not only did Jonathan restore my faith that the most innovative, high-quality software being created today is all being done using the open source model, he reminded me that the most interesting customers and users of these products are the new faithful.

I particularly enjoyed his reference to proprietary software vendors dominating customer environments in categories of basic application functionality, the kind of systems that IT staffs seek to make ever-more efficient (ERP, CRM, Payroll, etc.). In contrast, open source software and vendors are dominating in areas where computing resources need to be maximized and more fully leveraged, especially in web-based application design, development, virtualization, and delivery.

Think of the world's largest media, social networking, and global services firms. The complete software stack driving those environments is open source, nearly from top to bottom.

Open source is enabling the future, and not necessarily a Utopian one filled with badly managed beards and recursive acronyms. We seem to have shelved open source for the moment, considering it old news. But open source is the heart of the Web, the heart of today's disruption of yesterday's software dinosaurs.

Software as a service and cloud computing are simply clever names for business models built on the foundation of open-source software. How these play out is of supreme importance to open-source developers, but also to enterprises everywhere that will come to depend on open source-enabled enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, enterprise content management, etc., systems. Do they care about the licensing that will undergird these systems?

They should. We may find talk about open source stale, but it's more relevant than ever. Many thanks to Gentile for reminding us.


Disclosure: I am an adviser to JasperSoft and my company, Alfresco, offers an open-source alternative to Microsoft SharePoint.