Brian Prentice

A member of the Gartner Blog Network

Brian Prentice
Research VP
9 years at Gartner
26 years IT industry

Brian Prentice is a research vice president and focuses on emerging technologies and trends with an emphasis on those that impact an organization's software and application strategy... Read Full Bio

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Open Source’s Dying Narrative

by Brian Prentice  |  October 14, 2009  |  28 Comments

Have you been noticing that just when an open source project starts building some momentum – things like mySQL, WebTide or Spring – along comes some cashed up proprietary vendor to buy it ? Even the venture capitalists are in on the act! Companies like New Enterprise Associates, Accel, and Benchmark Capital – organizations noted for their interest in getting high returns ASAP – are funding open source startups like Pentaho, Alfresco, and SugarCRM.

Big software vendors and VCs throwing money around is not particularly interesting – that’s just the nature of the beast. But the fact that there are so many members of the “open source community” ready to sell out – now that’s interesting.

Well, actually, it’s interesting only to the extent you still believe the romantic narrative that commonly circulates around Open Source. That story involves bands of fiercely independent geek-heroes. Armed only with an Eclipse IDE, a weekend’s supply of Jolt Cola for energy and a poster of Jean-Luc Picard for inspiration, they set out to usurp the big software companies in their attempt to control the software universe.

Who would have thought such esprit de corps would be so easily bought. Not cheaply…just easily.

But let’s be clear here. While the romantic open source narrative is failing, Open Source continues to get stronger. And it’s doing so because it is becoming an integral component of modern software businesses. Gartner has been predicting that by 2011, at least 80% of all commercial software solutions will include elements of open source. That prediction is based on our observation that nearly all software vendors are finding ways to weave Open Source Software within, and around, their core offerings. It’s becoming quite common to find open source software that is tightly bound to some proprietary component – either other software or vendor-specific service offerings.

But a word of warning. There is a midpoint as a narrative moves from being relevantly insightful to quaintly nostalgic. And that’s when it’s dangerously distracting – exactly the point where so many find themselves caught in the evolution of Open Source. The fundamental principle upon which this aging narrative has been crafted – that Open Source sits in juxtaposition to proprietary software rather than being connected with it on a continuum – is today a false dichotomy. And the hardcore adherents of that dichotomy are apt to frame it in increasingly ideological terms. In their world you’re either with them or you’re against them.

From my experience it is enterprise IT organizations most likely to be caught up in the dying Open Source narrative. The software vendor community has long since figured out what’s going on. While the latter group sees Open Source through the lens of nuanced strategic objectives and synthesizing engineering endeavours, the former sees Open Source through the lens of a tactical sourcing option. For them it is the anti-proprietary option that can be used selectively to cut cost – quite often as little more than a negotiating tool. Then reality bites. TCO benefits turn out to be elusive. There is no vibrant community to assure the long-term viability of the project. Needed new features require the adoption of a proprietary version. All these problems, and a few others, are more easily identified if the IT organization would make a greater commitment to identifying what is actually driving the Open Source phenomenon.

And that will only happen when you, and your organization, are prepared to put away the fairy tale book. Let me make it easier by telling you the ending…

…and Open Source lived happily ever after.

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28 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tweets that mention Open Source’s Dying Narrative -- Topsy.com   October 15, 2009 at 3:29 am

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matt Asay, patrick finch. patrick finch said: via @mjasay (surprisingly good) Gartner on open source http://bit.ly/3EsJPX -not true for Free software, mind you ;) [...]

  • 2 451 CAOS Links (caostheory) 's status on Thursday, 15-Oct-09 08:23:50 UTC - Identi.ca   October 15, 2009 at 4:23 am

    [...] http://blogs.gartner.com/brian_prentice/2009/10/14/open-sources-dying-narrative/ a few seconds ago from seesmic [...]

  • 3 Analysts build open source straw men | Open Source | ZDNet.com   October 16, 2009 at 10:30 am

    [...] Here comes one now: That story involves bands of fiercely independent geek-heroes. Armed only with an Eclipse IDE, a weekend’s supply of Jolt Cola for energy and a poster of Jean-Luc Picard for inspiration, they set out to usurp the big software companies in their attempt to control the software universe. [...]

  • 4 Romantic, Old-School Open Source Notions Abound [OStatic] | BYOHosting.com Blogs   October 16, 2009 at 11:23 am

    [...] Gartner analyst Brian Prentice and Zack Urlocker writing for InfoWorld have both posted thoughtful takes on open source’s place in the world now that big proprietary software vendors are scooping open source players up. “The fact that there are so many members of the ‘open source community’ ready to sell out – now that’s interesting,” writes Prentice. “Well, actually,” he adds, “it’s interesting only to the extent you still believe the romantic narrative that commonly circulates around Open Source. That story involves bands of fiercely independent geek-heroes.” Actually, what’s interesting to me is that a lot of people do still believe that kind of thing. [...]

  • 5 James Dixon   October 16, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    Brian,

    Really what you are talking about is the difference in thinking between the ideology-heavy Free Software movement and the more pragmatic Open Source movement.

    What you are saying is that the Free Software movement is becoming less relevant. I think you are correct for this reason. As open source software gains adoption in the mainstream markets it will attract mainly pragmatic Open Source members, and much fewer Free Software advocates. As this happens the ratio of Free Software advocates to Open Source advocates will change in favour of open source.

    To find out if you are believer in Free Software or Open Source –
    http://jamesdixon.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/misunderstanding-open-source-4-not-knowing-your-own-alignment/

    James Dixon, CTO, Pentaho

  • 6 Gartner on the evolving nature of open source | Open Source Blog   October 16, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    [...] Prentice over at Gartner has posted an interesting blog article called “Open Source’s Dying Narrative.” While I don’t quite get the title, it’s an insightful piece about how open [...]

  • 7 Analysts build open source straw men | Open Source Blog   October 16, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    [...] Here comes one now: That story involves bands of fiercely independent geek-heroes. Armed only with an Eclipse IDE, a weekend’s supply of Jolt Cola for energy and a poster of Jean-Luc Picard for inspiration, they set out to usurp the big software companies in their attempt to control the software universe. [...]

  • 8 Open source narrative – growing not dying « James Dixon’s Blog   October 16, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    [...] a comment » Brian Gentile at Gartner wrote a post titled Open Source’s Dying Narrative in which he talks about his perception that the ‘narrative’ behind open source is [...]

  • 9 James Dixon   October 16, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    I blogged on this – Open source narrative – growing not dying

    http://jamesdixon.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/open-source-narrative-growing-not-dying/

  • 10 CRM Outsiders » Blog Archive » The Changing Nature of Open Source’s Value   October 16, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    [...] recently came across this post by Gartner analyst Brian Prentice, in which talks about his perception that the “narrative” [...]

  • 11 Analysts build open source straw men | WebFroster   October 17, 2009 at 3:11 am

    [...] Here comes one now: That story involves bands of fiercely independent geek-heroes. Armed only with an Eclipse IDE, a weekend’s supply of Jolt Cola for energy and a poster of Jean-Luc Picard for inspiration, they set out to usurp the big software companies in their attempt to control the software universe. [...]

  • 12 Post to Open@Krishworld (weekly)- Open@Krishworld   October 17, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    [...] Open Source’s Dying Narrative [...]

  • 13 Brian Prentice   October 18, 2009 at 1:06 am

    MY RESPONSE TO DANA BLAKENHORN of ZDNet

    These comments were posted on his website and I believe need to be duplicated here given the number of pingbacks to his blog post.

    Dana – I would like to invite your audience to actually read my post. Once they do I think they’ll realize that my position has been grossly misrepresented in your blog. You have quoted a mere two sentences of my blog post and taken them entirely out of context. And it seems you have done so in order to accuse the analyst community of not understanding Open Source or being in some state of anger, denial, bargaining or depression.

    The first issue Dana is that the very point I was conveying in my blog post was that straw men distinctions in the modern world of open source are not only irrelevant but dangerously distracting. Based on the other bloggers who’ve linked to my post it would appear that you’re the only one who misunderstood this point.

    And while I’m not in the position to comment on other organizations like Forrester what I can say is that both I personally, and Gartner as an organization, have published, commented and spoken extensively on Open Source. So, your assertion that I, or the organization I work for, have not accepted Open Source is demonstrably false. A basic fact check would have cleared any such confusion.

    Finally, I have come to expect from some quarters of the blogosphere the tired, and baseless, old assertion that my views as an analyst only extend as far as my employer’s ability to sell “studies on sales channels.” But I do not expect to see them from a seasoned journalist like you. Particularly not one working for ZDNet – a publication which regularly turns to the analyst community for commentary and insight! I would hope that you can find a few minutes to consider the comments of my colleague Thomas Bittman in his post “A Rant – My Integrity As An Analyst” (http://blogs.gartner.com/thomas_bittman/2009/10/08/a-rant-my-integrity-as-an-analyst/)

    I welcome any and all civilly expressed dissenting opinions. Ultimately though, your position is not diminished if you choose to play the ball and not the man.

    Cheers,

    Brian Prentice

  • 14 Gerhard Mack   October 18, 2009 at 1:48 am

    The only people who will mourn the loss of that “romantic ideal” are proprietary vendors who have been using it to scare businesses away from open source. The rest of us don’t care who pays for it so if some venture capitalist wants to fork out a million or two for my favorite project I don’t really care so long as the license stays free and open.

  • 15 Nils R Grotnes   October 18, 2009 at 6:29 am

    Article essence:

    Free Open Source doesn’t work for businesses, because sooner or later you’ll need a proprietary version for needed new features.

    There is no vibrant community to assure the long-term viability of projects, because Open Sourcers sell out easily and (Brian’s version of) the story on how Open Source is developed is quaintly nostalgic.

    This is dangerous for enterprise IT organizations, because TCO benefits turn out to be elusive.

    Brian’s conclusion:

    IT organization should make a greater commitment to identifying what is actually driving the Open Source phenomenon.

    My opinion:

    Not coincidentally, that’s exactly what Gardner claims to sell.

    But save your money. All Brian has show here is that he (and probably Gardner as well) doesn’t know (or are not willing to tell) much about how FLOSS works.

    The true value of FLOSS is its long term staying power. It allows anyone to build on what have been done before. No more need to throw the good old stuff out because fresh income can only be had by creating new incompatible versions. Businesses get more value because in FLOSS, support is a competitive market, turning the situation right side up again. In stark contrast to proprietary models, where support at best is seen as a necessary evil, at worst as a monopolized cash cow. Businesses flogging hybrid source will probably survive as long as they create enough value, but FLOSS will carry on just fine in either case.

    My short version:

    Stories doesn’t matter. Code freedom does.

  • 16 Microsoft Analysts Mock Free Software and Praise Vista 7 | Boycott Novell   October 18, 2009 at 6:53 am

    [...] who threw mud at ODF using shameless FUD (which turned out to be utterly incorrect). He now throws mud at FOSS, having raved about software patents for a while [1, 2, 3, 4]. InfoWorld (IDG) has more to say [...]

  • 17 Dougal   October 18, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    “Armed only with an Eclipse IDE”

    You must be kidding.
    This really shows you have no idea what you’re on about (see all the Vi/EMACS wars).

  • 18 bigpicture   October 18, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    I have been following this kind of debate for years. Yes there are (1) rabid Free Software advocates. And there are (2) the Open Source advocates. If it had not been for (1) there would have been no (2) because (1) Were the revolutionaries and the revolution is just about over. The primary issues (a) Proprietary code and (b) contaminated code.

    Propriety code CANNOT contaminate OPEN code, but OPEN code makes proprietary code OPEN. Example, for a Linux OS I lean toward Kubuntu and not SUSE because Kubuntu makes proprietary drivers available and easily installable. (leaning toward Open Source) With SUSE and drivers, you are on your own. (leaning toward free software)

  • 19 KD   October 18, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    I think the notion that free or open source software is supposed to be the provice of “fiercely independent geek-heroes” is a mischaracterization.

    What I’ve always thought was the main idea of free/open source software is that anyone who wants to use it, but finds that it lacks some capability they want, is free to enhance the software themselves or hire someone to make the enhancements. And, although it is not required (unless the software is GPL licensed and you distribute the changed version), it is sort of expected that you make the enhancements available for others to use, or to be incorporated into the official version of the software, as payback to the community, since you got a lot of value from the community to start with.

    The notion, in simpler terms, is that people implement what they need, and let everyone use it.

    I don’t believe that is fairly characterized as “fiercely independent geek-heroes”. It isn’t the same as VCs buying up free software projects, either. And I think that there are not a lot of free software projects that match that ideal. Apache, at least originally, probably was pretty close. The Linux kernel isn’t terribly far from it. In the case of the Linux kernel, the “fiercely independent geek-heroes” picture is sort of true, but more due to the nature of the software than due to the free software model itself.

    I think not enough organizations realize the advantages they could get by actively participating in free software projects in the way I described, above. Or if they do realize it, they don’t see it happening, so they don’t see a community to join. Maybe what we need is some free software advocates to promote that idea more widely, showing organizations that depend on software the advantages of sharing the development effort in the free software way.

  • 20 Brian Prentice   October 18, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    To James Dixon – I think you’re making a good point here. I think there is a growing ideological rift between FOSS advocates and the broader Open Source community. Mind you, I’m not sure your average IT person is aware of that distinction.

    BTW – I really like your blog post. Well said!

  • 21 Brian Prentice   October 18, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    To Gerhard Mack – you say “The rest of us don’t care who pays for it so if some venture capitalist wants to fork out a million or two for my favorite project I don’t really care so long as the license stays free and open.”

    If only it were so easy! VCs are not about to throw money at software that is free and open. They may be many things but VCs are not stupid. So, what we’re seeing emerging is more and more “commercial open source.” In many cases the free, open solution is simply a functional subset of a full featured, proprietary offering. Therefore, OSS is essentially a sales & marketing tool – it’s a way to prime the pump to move customers into payed-for and proprietary solutions.

  • 22 Romantic, Old-School Open Source Notions Abound | google android os blog   October 18, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    [...] Gartner analyst Brian Prentice and Zack Urlocker writing for InfoWorld have both posted thoughtful takes on open source’s place in the world now that big proprietary software vendors are scooping open source players up. "The fact that there are so many members of the ‘open source community’ ready to sell out – now that’s interesting," writes Prentice. "Well, actually," he adds, "it’s interesting only to the extent you still believe the romantic narrative that commonly circulates around Open Source. That story involves bands of fiercely independent geek-heroes." Actually, what’s interesting to me is that a lot of people do still believe that kind of thing. [...]

  • 23 Brian Prentice   October 18, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    To Nils R Grotnes – well, we’re in agreement with one key point. Never take IT advice from your gardner :-) (my firm’s name is actually Gartner).

    Besides that your interpretation of this blog’s “essence” is completely wrong! The fact is that not all Open Source projects have sustainable communities. Enterprise IT organizations that commit to such projects will find themselves in the awkward position of having to sustain the project by themselves. And yes – there are OSS solutions that are being specifically designed to move users into paid-for, proprietary offerings in order to get access to certain features.

    None of this means Open Source is doesn’t work for business. In fact, the very specific point I’m raising is that it is increasingly being woven into software business models. My concern is that enterprise IT organizations do not understand the strategic possibilities of Open Source because they’re obsessing with the tactical.

    You will note Niles that no one is paying for this blog. You’ll note that there is no advertising. You should also note that this blog represents my personal opinion. But the reason there are organizations prepared to pay organization’s like Gartner for their insight is because they don’t trust the Pollyanna claims of starry-eyed optimists.

    Open Source has huge potential. More organizations are understanding that. But as this realization is growing so too is the recognition that Open Source is far more nuanced than so many people make out. My objective is to make whatever contribution I can to help people understand those distinctions. And I will do that in through a free, open blog in addition to the commercial offerings of my employer (which I make no apology for).

  • 24 Brian Prentice   October 18, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Dougal – relax, have some marmite on toast and don’t get caught up over a single sentence – used in jest – from the entire blog post. :-)

  • 25 Brian Prentice   October 18, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    KD – yes, the notion that free or open source software is supposed to be the provice of “fiercely independent geek-heroes” is a mis-characterization. That is my point. Such a view is invalid. And while I was using a little poetic license in my description, an image in that general vicinity is still common.

    In fact, the average open source programmer is more likely to be a degree-holding, professional engineer who is developing open source code in support of their employer’s broader commercial objectives.

  • 26 steven   October 18, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    Brian,
    Your comment “In fact, the average open source programmer is more likely to be a degree-holding, professional engineer who is developing open source code in support of their employer’s broader commercial objectives” seems to be inconsistent with the tenor of your original blog. Such persons are hardly likely to be “members of the “open source community” ready to sell out” as they have nothing to sell.

    If there are multiple commercial interests involved in a project and a single entity does not own (or otherwise control) all the source then the project is likely to be protected from marauding VCs.

    Your comment: “From my experience it is enterprise IT organizations most likely to be caught up in the dying Open Source narrative” amused me. These presumably would be different enterprise IT organizations than the ones that invested their employer’s money in good solid long-lived proprietary offerings such as those shown at http://www.erpgraveyard.com/tombs.html on the page called “ERP Graveyard Scorecard”.

  • 27 Brian Prentice   October 19, 2009 at 7:55 am

    Steven,
    The tenor of the note is better represented by the statement “…Open Source continues to get stronger. And it’s doing so because it is becoming an integral component of modern software businesses. Gartner has been predicting that by 2011, at least 80% of all commercial software solutions will include elements of open source.” When you compare the comment I made to KD to that statement I think it’s quite consistent.

    And no, those are the same IT organization I’m speaking to :-) But let’s also remember that Open Source software is still software. The same symptoms that can lead to failed proprietary software implementations (i.e. poor scope, lacking oversight, non-existent success metrics, etc.) can cause problems with Open Source software implementations too.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  • 28 Open source’s “romantic narrative” | Open Ecosystems   October 20, 2009 at 11:47 am

    [...] (Gartner) post entitled “Open Source’s Dying Narrative” (read the whole thing here): Big software vendors and VCs throwing money around is not particularly interesting – that’s [...]