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Open Source's Only Friend

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Lumbering into the large, slightly faded ballroom of The Palace Hotel in San Francisco, a crowd of mid-level and upper-level IT managers gathered to listen to the morning Open Source Business Conference keynote from Red Hat CEO and President Matt Szulik.

This is an interesting conference in the Linux and open source conference lineup: it's official goal is getting attendees to realize how open source can practically fit within their companies. Unofficially, it's about getting vendors and customers together. Yes, the topic is technology, but this is a business conference, no bones about it.

Conference Chair Matt Asay opened the conference with a recap of where open source is right now, citing $2 billion of investment in open source since 1997.

Asay came out swinging against recent attacks on open source, not the least of which are the alleged 235 infringed patents Microsoft has claimed against Linux. Asay believes that this is part of the growth of open source, that it's only natural for detractors to come out of the woodwork as open source gets more successful.

"In the end," Asay told the crowd of over 300, "open source's only friend is the customer."

It was Asay's hope that conference goers would learn how respond to all of these attacks on open source as open source accelerates.

Szulik, fresh from the recent Red Hat Summit, opened his presentation with one of the techno-multimedia-marketing presentations that Red Hat has been known for in the last couple of years. The "You Are Here" short movie featured historical comments from inventors who never thought certain technologies would go anywhere (Thomas Edison's detraction of the commercial value of the phonograph, Bill Gate's infamous "640K is enough memory for anybody" statement).

When he got going, Szulik picked up on the acceleration theme and cited something interesting: the entry level for anyone to start a technology business has never been lower: thanks to the availability of x86 machines, the LAMP stack, and so many free and open tools.

Szulik also emphasized that the time for advocating open source as a concept has passed: "Open source doesn't need to be legitimized. What needs to be legitimized is the shift of open source as a value-based business model."

The threat to proprietary vendors, in Szulik's opinion, is that the argument is moving away from cost and over to value. Open source has long beat proprietary vendors on cost, and now customers are seeing it can take on proprietary vendors on value, too.

One potential opportunity for open source is the "trillions of dollars" wrapped up in so many global legacy IT systems out there. After all, IT did not just start in 1997. Governments, financial services, defense departments... all use legacy systems that need to be integrated with current systems, or upgraded and consolidated to current technology levels.

But it's not just dealing with the 1s and 0s, Szulik added. The open source IT industry needs to develop the service levels needed to effectively deal with customers. There is a strong need to undo the bad relationships created by proprietary vendor lock-in, and build new relationships that repairs that damage.

Interoperability is another opportunity/challenge. What vendors call interoperability, Szulik calls standards, something he pushes with customers all the time. "Interoperability" might really refer to a vendor trying to get a hold of the market.

On the topic of patents, Szulik reminded the audience that every prominent member of the open source community he has spoken to has been respectful of intellectual property. "This is not a renegade operation." The argument should be flipped around. It's not about patents, it should be about innovation going forward, with a big dollop of education to get people informed about public licensing.

"People want to share knowledge. Is it hard? It's very hard," Szulik said. As an example, he cited a recent conversation with a Chancellor at the University of North Carolina where Szulik learned that 11 years of cancer research had to be thrown away because of system incompatibilities.

Szulik spoke passionately about what he sees about open source as a vendor, mirroring the tone of his keynote from the Red Hat Summit a couple of weeks ago. Clearly, Szulik is continuing his mission to preach the Gospel According to Open Source. I don't say that in a mocking way; it's good to get motivated about what we're dealing with on a daily basis, especially when you want to find new opportunities.

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