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Editor's Note: Proprietary vs. Open Source!=Matter, Antimatter

Jul 16, 2004, 23:30 (8 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

Here's a question: can proprietary software business models co-exist with open source business models?

Nothing like just jumping right in, isn't there? But I ask this question, because several times I have heard it at least mentioned and at times challanged strongly these past few weeks. Once a question like that gets framed, I employ what my wife calls the "Y?-Because-I-said-so" chromosome to answer it. Before my head explodes.

A lot of hay has been made about this point, so certainly my addressing it isn't anything unique. But, I'll give it a stab anyway.

Though this internal debate has been flitting about in my brain cells for a little while, it really came to a head during this week's broadcast of The Linux Show.

I like filling in on The Linux Show, because it harkens back to my college days when I was on the college radio station. Plus, I get that personal contact with people I really respect. This week, they had Ken Brown from AdTI on, as well as Eric Raymond. I figured Jeff Gerhardt, the show's organizer and host, was going for good radio, and he certainly got it.

Before the show, I debated going after Brown for AdTI's little slam against LT--then I heard Eric was going to be on, and I decided I was just going to ask a question or two and then get out of the way. Eric, like many passionate people, can get a bit, um, upset when he gets on a righteous tear and I didn't think he would keep cool for long.

Indeed, it was hard to keep my own temper in check when Brown started to deliver his spiel. I will say this for the man, he is very good at what he is paid to do: be a very slick paid lobbyist for his clients. It was this, and the fact that my daughters were getting tucked in across the hall from my office and I had to be quiet, that kept me from losing my cool, too.

After listening to Brown bad-mouth the unviability and unprofitability of the open-source business model for the umpteenth time, though, I had to jumnp in with what to me is the opener to this debate: "Even if, Mr. Brown, as you say, IBM and all the rest will lose money on open source, what does it matter to you? If a company makes a bad decision, that's their right. I don't think open source is a bad decision, but even if it is, what do you care?"

I have never understood how so-called independent observers can take the position that open source is the root of all evil. Because, if they were truly independent, at best they should say, "we don't think that open source will work, we think you're silly for using it, but hey, it's your funeral." Of course, the fact that very few analysts and observers take such a passive stance is evidence that their motivations are far from independent.

I mean, I understand why Microsoft comes after open source. And SCO. And Green River. And all the rest of the proprietary-only vendors. There's a direct inverse relationship between the success of open source and the success of their businesses. So, though I don't agree with the FUD many of them toss around, I certainly can understand why they throw it.

There was one clue to Brown's stance that he mentioned: he does not believe that open source and proprietary business models can co-exist. While I am not foolish enough to believe that Brown is doing nothing more than parroting what his clients want him to say, this single statement seemed to reveal a bigger fear--beyond losing desktop seats--on the part of the proprietary vendors. They are afraid of losing their IP more than they are of losing their customers.

So, I ask you, can proprietary and open source co-exist as a development and business model?

My answer is, of course they can. In fact, I think they will both have to co-exist as the overall software economy endures yet another crisis.

I read in an article on BusinessWeek this week that analysts are predicting another bust in the software industry, as product enhancements grind to a halt and development budgets dwindle to nothing. As I read this, I realized that Linux was clearly a solution to a malaise in the software industry. You want to keep your developers working and selling new software? Start porting over to Linux.

As more people wait for Longhorn in 2005 (or 2006, according to some estimates), and become impatient for it, the need for something "new" will be very strong amongst PC vendors, because their customers will resist buying new machines--beyond what gets replaced through natural attrition and failure. "Why should I buy new computers running the same XP software I was using years ago? How much faster do I have to have Word run, anyway?"

Desperate for a new gimmick to offer their customers, PC makers will come to an inescapable conclusion: wait for Longhorn and starve, or offer Linux and start selling more machines.

Software makers are coming around to this conclusion as well. If the platform underneath doesn't change, more customers will resist upgrading to the latest and greatest version of CoolPropSoftware 10.0. Because CoolPropSoftware 8.0 is running just fine, thank you. These economic realities will force more software vendors to look for other pastures. Or icebergs.

Now, will these vendors balk at the open source concept? Some will, some won't. To those that will embrace open source and shift to a more service-oriented model, great. To those that will stick with the sell the binaries in a box method, I say great, too.

Because using a computer is about choice, I will buy proprietary software for my Linux box just as readily as I will download open source software. Because I just want it to work. I don't use Linux primarily because it is free or Free, I use it because it's secure, fast, and does the job I need it to do well. The Freedom part is just a wonderful bonus.

This is a chance, all you vendors out there, to start generating some new customers. While it would be nice, you don't have to embrace open source to sell Linux software. By introducing your software and working with hardware vendors on bundling deals, you can crack open a whole new market--and an enterprise market to boot.

Proprietary business is not going to be killed by open source, and neither will open source be offed by proprietary methodologies. Each will learn to live with each other... so that both sides will be able to reap the benefits.

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