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Open source: Still room for the little guy?

Open source is increasingly a key strategy for the big enterprise-software vendors, but this doesn't mean there isn't still a place for small players.

Open source started small, but it's increasingly looking like it's a game for big vendors to play.

That's because open source is all about scale, which is hard to attain as a small player. MySQL took 10 years, Red Hat wasn't much faster, and JBoss was also a long-term project.

Companies like IBM, Oracle, and even Microsoft find it much easier to get quickly to scale through their built-in communities.

Is open source a game only an IBM can play?

There is no such thing as automatic community, of course, so we see companies (big and small, but mostly small) either latching onto existing communities and then trying to monetize them. Or we see big companies kick-starting community, as Google has done with Android.

The downside to the small-company-big-community approach is that it can be hard to sell value around a community that is used to getting everything free of charge.

The upside to the big-company-create-community approach is that large-scale enterprises generally don't need to worry about selling value because they already have profitable product lines that complement the open-source projects they feed.

This has become an increasingly interesting approach for companies as diverse as IBM, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft.

Indeed, open source accounts for much of the most interesting tech strategy such companies engage in. And for some companies, it's the only interesting tech outreach they do, at least in the view of this highly biased open-source advocate.

Despite this big company dominance in the more intriguing areas of open source, I don't think we need worry about "The Man" taking over open source. Open-source projects of all shapes and sizes continue to sprout and flourish outside the control of the enterprise-software hegemons, or by any company at all.

Sure, to thrive many will seek outside sponsorship, either from a VC or a strategic investor/partner like IBM.

But many others won't, preserving the rich tradition of both serving The Man and sticking a finger in his eye--often at the very same time.