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
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
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
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
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
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
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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