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Open source is mainstream. Is it the only stream?

Is there a better way than open source? The industry increasingly doesn't think so.

The obvious answer to my question above is, "No." But sometimes the obvious is, well, not so obvious.

InformationWeek's Serdar Yegulalp writes:

If open source continues to vigorously gain traction as a business model amongst software developers, Microsoft and its ilk will suffer one of three fates in the long run: a slow death where they are whittled down by competition not restricted as heavily by onerous licensing and costs; a trimming-down -- either slow or fast -- where they adopt open source as a way of life; or they somehow remain lone holdouts by dint of offering something that, for whatever reason, people still want to pay for.

This is already happening. Ask VCs what they're investing in and you'll find few traditional, proprietary software companies. The only companies who seem to continue to make a living in this fashion are the behemoths who leave customers little choice but to buy from them.

For now.

It's clear that we're moving into a world where what we used to think must be proprietary - the core, on-premise software with which enterprises run their businesses - no longer needs to be. In fact, the justifications for keeping it so fade with a whimper on a daily basis.

But it's not as if "proprietary" is going away. It's just migrating both higher up and deeper down the software stack. Tim O'Reilly identifies the "deeper down" proprietary hook: data. Locking up the software is increasingly counterproductive to the 21st Century's gold mine, data. Google must have people using its software for free so that it can capture mountains of data. Close off the software (in the traditional sense) and the model dies.

As for migrating "higher up," we're increasingly seeing the core of products being open while thin layers of proprietary software or service cover the surface. This is the model of a SugarCRM, yes, but it's also the model of a and other SaaS companies who heavily adopt open-source software at their core.

But it goes beyond these more traditional examples of proprietary licenses. What about Red Hat, Alfresco, JBoss, MySQL, etc.? Each of these companies gives away their software but makes certain services (from break/fix support to developer assistance to patch-distribution networks) closed to all but customers.

We are fast approaching a time when all of the software traditionally closed in the 20th Century will likely be open in the 21st Century, but "proprietary" will shift to new areas of the software stack.

This leaves us with a difficult question: Is this new world really any more open than the old one?

I firmly believe that, at least in many cases, the answer is 'Yes.' While a customer can't use the Red Hat Network freely (as in freedom and as in cost), it can use Red Hat's Linux operating system in this way. It can fork it. RHN makes adoption of Red Hat's Linux distribution easier, but it does not preclude adoption without a relationship with Red Hat.

Google does not lock in users to its services. A new search engine is literally a click away. I can even use Google to take me there. No, Google's lock-in is by making its data portfolio so rich that going elsewhere results in a degraded search/email/etc. experience. Benevolent lock-in, if you will.

This is a better world for customers. It's not a free lunch, per se, but it's a much better meal.