Open source is dying -- or maybe it isn't

The open source model is broken. Fighting Microsoft was a big mistake. And, yes, open source is the key to a better future.

Put three geeks in a room and it won't take long to start an argument. Well, analyst Dennis Byron, veteran open source exec Stuart Cohen, and ex-Microsoft developer Keith Curtis weren't exactly in the same room, but all three have provocative opinions about the future of software in general and of open source in particular.

Byron, who has 30 years of technology experience under his belt, thinks that the open source era is coming to an inglorious end, with Linux and the like becoming "an asterisk in the history and future of technology." Moreover, he claims that the long struggle against Microsoft's undue influence hurt the software industry more than it hurt Gates & Co.

[ Keep up with open source news and views with InfoWorld's Open Sources blog. ]

Curtis, whose opinions are contained in his book After the Software Wars, now available on the Web, says his former employer is "toast" and believes that free software is the key to breathtaking technological progress in everything from space travel and artificial intelligence to automobiles that drive themselves.

Cohen, CEO of Collaborative Software Initiative, argues that open source's greatest strength -- its top-notch code -- is also its greatest weakness. "Open source code is generally great code, not requiring much support. So open source companies that rely on support and service alone are not long for this world," he wrote recently in a BusinessWeek blog.

Why should you care? It's simple. Bad times -- and who can doubt that they're here -- are the most important times to question our basic assumptions. I'm not at all sure that any of these gentlemen has it right, but they certainly raise issues that developers, managers, and investors in open source should be thinking about.

(I had a chance to speak to Byron and Cohen after reading their blog posts, but I wasn't able to reach Curtis, so I'll simply quote from After the Software Wars.)

If it ain't broken, why pay to fix it?

When Cohen's post first appeared, he took some heat from people who thought he was saying that open source is sick. So he was quick to tell me that he was misunderstood: "Two issues get blurred. The health of open source software has never been better when we are talking about the quality of the code. The number of people using it and the number of enterprises deploying it have never been higher."

But he maintains that the classic open source business model no longer works very well, and so it has to change.

If open source code is so solid that it doesn't require much support (his assumption, not mine), how then does an open source company make any money? There are basically two ways, argues Cohen.

The first: Get small. He figures that companies can live on lower revenue and margins by not spending much money. The downside: Unless the company has invented something so terrific that it'd be a takeover target, investors will have little interest. The other road: Emulate Red Hat.

"Red Hat, arguably the most successful open source company, has also found ways to add value beyond supporting the Linux kernel. It adds substantial layers of software on top of the kernel, a solid piece of software that needs little support, in order to provide additional value to its customers. If Red Hat relied on supporting the Linux kernel, it would go out of business simply because the code is so sound," Cohen says.

Collaboration via open source can reap big savings

Cohen's Collaborative Software Initiative offers a different model. CSI pulls together teams from companies interested in developing applications that don't enable competitive advantage. CSI's developers do the heavy programming work in collaboration with subject experts from the participating companies.

Interestingly, some recent work by Dennis Byron, who has no relationship with CSI, sheds some light on the advantage of that model. An analyst with IT Investment Research, Byron looked at a study by the Linux Foundation that claims that the total cost of development of Fedora 9 would have been $10.8 billion if it had been done from scratch by one company using a closed source development methodology.

Byron applied the Linux Foundation's rather academic methodology to the development costs of Microsoft's Vista and closely related products and found that Redmond's costs were approximately $14 billion, which lines up pretty well with the Fedora costs. The real takeaway from Byron's exercise is that the Linux Foundation estimate is a reasonable one to use, and that the collaborative nature of open-source development is a good deal for investors because cheaper is obviously better if quality is consistent.

Only a pawn in McNealy's anti-Microsoft game

Despite the obvious advantage of collaborative development, Byron is not bullish on the future of open source. He lists a number of reasons why it will just be a footnote in the history of technology.

Most controversial, I think, is Byron's assertion that "the [open source] community was a mostly unwitting pawn in a 10-year marketing and political/regulatory campaign to attack Microsoft and promote the market capitalization of other public companies. The detour in software development best-practice improvement and new software functionality that resulted has harmed the software industry as a whole a lot more than it harmed Microsoft."

He continues: "It's the 'us vs. them' thing over intellectual property, this or that vendor's choice of how to market its products and/or services, OOXML, and other useless open standards activity, degrees of quality control, 'Halloween memos,' SCO Unix, free vs. open, and especially Microsoft ad nauseum that has left the open-source concept an asterisk in what historians will write about the by-then dormant software industry in 2050."

For all its apparent success, open source software is still just a tiny percentage of overall software spending, "an asterisk on an asterisk," Byron says.

All in all, says Byron, software is becoming marginalized as more and more code winds up embedded in appliances. If there is any chance to reverse that trend, counsels Byron, the open source movement needs to recapture the era before Microsoft and (to quote Unix pioneer Dennis Ritchie) "preserve [more than a good] environment in which to do programming, but a system around which a fellowship could form."

If open source is soon to be history, so is Microsoft

Curtis is fun to read. I love his opening anecdote about his first meeting with Bill Gates. "He stood in the yard of his Washington lake-front home, Diet Coke in hand, a tastefully small ketchup stain on his shirt, which no one had the courage to point out, and answered our questions, in turn, like a savant."

Years later, he was less impressed with Microsoft and quit out of boredom after 11 years with the company. Now he thinks it's "toast," and likens proprietary software to alchemy. "The difference between free and non-free or proprietary software is similar to the divide between science and alchemy. Before science, there was alchemy, where people guarded their ideas because they wanted to corner the market on the mechanisms used to convert lead into gold."

Curtis has a lot more to say, particularly about the development process. Check it out. (When I first posted this column, I linked to a site that allowed free download of his book. Curtis has asked me to change the link so it points to a paid version; after all, a writer's got to make a living.)

And remember, I'm not an advocate of any of the positions referenced here. But I am an advocate of debate and I suggest you follow the links in this post to get the perspectives of our geek virtual panel at more length.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

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