Open source fanatics – choose wisely
Every once in a while I get a feeling that one of the things holding open source / free software back is the people who believe in it the most. Today is one of those days.
I love open source. I think open source is the best and most efficient way to create software. I believe that in the future the majority of software will be open source. I believe that future is getting closer little by little. But it is still a long way off. I cannot envision a future where all software is open source, at least not in any time-frame that makes it worth thinking about. If you want a future where all or most software is open source you need to accept that businesses large and small must be able participate – and by participate I mean use, create, and make money from open source. Not only should businesses be able to participate, they should be more successful when they do. There is no possible future where open source is predominant and, at the same time, businesses cannot participate.
Open source is very well established in some software domains today. But the roots of the open source movement go back 20-30 years. The rise and adoption of open source has been unstoppable in numerous markets, but it has also been slow and gradual. The adoption of open source operating systems has been slow and gradual. The adoption of open source databases and middleware has been slow and gradual. The adoption of open source applications has been slow and gradual. Look at the adoption of Linux, or Firefox, or OpenOffice, or MySQL – steady and unstoppable, but gradual in every case. Open source has been around a long time, and adoption is ever increasing – we are in a world that is more receptive to open source every day. This is clearly an evolution – any revolution that takes over 20 years is pedestrian by any measure.
Given that we are evolving gradually and that businesses must be able to participate, here is my issue today. We are at a point where one of the world’s largest software vendors (Oracle) is suddenly going to hold some major open source cards (MySQL, OpenSolaris, Java etc). Is this part of the forward evolution? Or is this a set back? Here are two extreme outcomes:
Extreme Outcome #1: Oracle has a great experience with its new open source portfolio. Oracle becomes a true believer. Oracle starts to build new open source software or open source its existing applications one by one. Everyone sees the success Oracle is having with open source. This forces their competitors to create open source offerings. It encourages other companies to create or acquire open source software. It encourages the VCs to fund more open source startups. It encourages more startups to use an open source model. The amount of open source software increases and the percentage of proprietary software in the world decreases. The rate of open source adoption increases.
Extreme Outcome #2: Oracle has a really bad experience with its new open source portfolio. All the projects get forked, even before the deal is formally signed. The employees are actively lured away from Oracle. Everyone that can, clusters around the forks. Oracle gets zero revenue and no community traction. The open source pieces of the Sun deal turn out to be worthless. Everyone sees this. All big software companies assume that acquiring open source companies is really hard. Oracle is one of the best when it comes to buying companies: if Oracle can’t make it work, no-one can. Big companies stop acquiring open source companies. Big companies don’t consider open sourcing their products. Without the possibility of an acquisition,VCs are hesitant to invest in open source startups. Without funding startups choose the safer option – proprietary software. The amount of proprietary software rises, the rate of open source adoption lowers.
I am not a great fan of Oracle. My initial reaction to the news of the Sun acquisition was negative. But if you are a fan of open source Extreme Outcome #1 has to be the better one.
Look at the groups and individuals that are creating alliances, and forks, and protesting against Oracle. Ask yourself what their motivation is. Is it for the long term benefit of open source – or the short term benefit of themselves? Many of the companies involved are MySQL or Sun partners who think they won’t be able to compete with Oracle’s existing partners. They are just looking after the interests of their shareholders. Their actions have nothing to do with open source, nor should they be. They are entitled to act in their own interest. I believe they are not acting in the best interests of open source, but many people seem to assume that they are.
Are you are an open source advocate who has no direct involvement with MySQL or Sun? I encourage you to step back and look at the big picture. Think about the future you want and how we can get there. Make up your own mind. Before you cheer for the alliances and the forks, ask yourself if you are acting in the best interests of open source.