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.