Open source has won -- let the infighting begin!

The dynamics of software are changing, from hoarding licenses to growing communities. But that won’t make the market any less competitive

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For years, the open source world has taken comfort in a bit of Gandhi wisdom: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Red Hat went so far as to emblazon the phrase on the walls of its lobby, a reminder to open sourcers everywhere to take courage against the proprietary software machine.

Open source has different problems today. In a world that has gone from accepting open source to expecting it, to paraphrase MongoDB’s Dwight Merriman, what machine should the open source world be raging against?

Given the absence of an outside enemy, it’s likely that open source will turn on itself.

Then you win

Most software is neither open source nor licensed. Instead, it’s built within banks and other enterprises for internal use and never shared with anyone beyond the four walls of the corporation.

Outside such internally developed software, much of the world’s software innovation has come from vendors like Oracle and SAP, which have built mammoth businesses licensing their innovations. In the last 10 years, however, this model has come under attack from open source and cloud, as RedMonk’s Stephen O’Grady describes:

While Oracle may attribute its adjusted earnings miss this quarter to currency fluctuations, or its shortfall two quarters ago to a “lack of urgency” in its sales force, the reality is that the trend line for its sales of new licenses has been problematic for well over a decade. Notably, this declining ability to sell new licenses of its software overlaps with rising adoption of open source software and SaaS packages, among other competitive models. This is no coincidence. While the underlying business and revenue models for open source and SaaS differ, they share one common advantage over traditional software distribution models such as Oracle: They are far easier to acquire.

It’s not merely a matter of ease, however. Today virtually all essential innovation -- at least, at the infrastructure layer of software -- is open source. In fact, Cloudera co-founder Mike Olson has declared, “No dominant platform-level software infrastructure has emerged in the last 10 years in closed-source, proprietary form.”

Repeat: None.

In other words, we’re well past the ignore/laugh phase of Gandhi’s quote and deep into win. This is why Merriman can credibly claim, without anyone snickering: “We went through a period where open source was new, but considered acceptable. I think we have now reached a point where it is expected.”

Let the open source infighting begin

It will be interesting to see how we deal with this victory. Historically, the open source world was riven by competing factions: the GNU/free software faction and the Apache/open source crowd. As much as the two groups wanted to duke it out with great Satans like Microsoft, they couldn’t help but skewer each other.

Over time, the pragmatism of open source has won out, as can be seen by the GNU General Public License’s persistent decline. The GPL, of course, embodies the ethos of free software.

Its demise, however, has been driven by the more relaxed approach of Apache luminaries like Hadoop founder Doug Cutting:

To me it's more common sense than following any particular creed. I want to help create software that people use, that's useful. I like to do this together with other people. The rest follows naturally.

Not everyone is as laid back as Cutting, however.

Across the big data landscape, for example, which is almost entirely open source, Hadoop vendors spar with each other over who is the most open and who employs the most project committers. In NoSQL land, vendors are so busy plastering each other with misleading benchmarks that they lose sight of the larger fight against proprietary RDBMS inertia. And among the cloud vendors, there’s continual verbal nonsense over who is the open sourciest.

As for OpenStack -- well, it has open source dysfunctions peculiar to itself.

Open source’s brave new world

Such internecine battles are, I suppose, inevitable. As much as we may long for a utopia where everyone holds hands, sings "Kumbaya," and gets along without incident, that’s not possible in a world that is all too human. The nature of the competition may have changed -- from hoarding licenses to growing communities -- but it’s still competition.

A license may urge us to share, but the reality is we’re still programmed to fight.

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