"I don't use the word 'evil,'" says Mike Evans – though he acknowledges that some of his customers do see proprietary commercial software vendors that way.
As vice president of corporate development for leading Linux vendor Red Hat, Evans patrols the front lines of one of the most important conflicts in computing today.
On one side, along with Red Hat, are companies such as Alfresco, MySQL, and SugarCRM – all leaders in the nascent business of open source. On the other side are the Microsofts, the Oracles, and the SAPs – the old guard of proprietary enterprise software.
IT purchasing managers, frustrated by ever-escalating licensing fees, often paint the proprietary vendors as the villains in this saga. Some even hope that open source will be the David that stops these software Goliaths in their tracks: no more vendor lock-in, no more license fees, no more closed code.
Could it really happen? Could the proprietary software model disappear in our lifetime? And more importantly, what would that really mean for customers? Open source has already had an irrevocable impact on the software industry. If that trend continues to its ultimate, it could mean the annihilation of the software market as we know it.
But such an outcome is hardly likely. According to Evans, it's a mistake to paint the open source debate in such Tolkienesque terms.
"The majority of Red Hat people do not wake up in the morning saying, 'how do I hurt Microsoft,' or 'how do I hurt Oracle,' or whoever it is," he says. "They look at how they can make a better piece of technology for the market and for their customers."
While an all-out cataclysm in the software industry is unlikely, change is inevitable. The software market is a very different place today than it was 10 years ago. Over the next decade, it will continue to evolve in unexpected ways, tugged this way and that by open source and proprietary interests. And, as in previous software eras, customers will be forced to adapt.
Giving it away
How did we get to where we are today? The popular misconception is that open source has become popular due mainly to its low cost. T.H. Wood, a principal with Bintex, a technology consulting and systems integration group, is unequivocal on this point: "The majority of our customers are not choosing open source based purely on expense," he says.
Yet no one denies that cost, or rather the lack of it, has revved up the engine of software distribution. Free downloads now proliferate even among proprietary vendors. It's hard to imagine how any market could remain stable when producers give their products away for free. Yet practically every software vendor now does it, open source or not.
"I don't think you would see IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft offering free 'express' versions of their [database] products if it weren't for the popularity of MySQL, for example," says Zack Urlocker, executive vice president of products for MySQL.
Giving away software might seem like a poor business decision, but it's a good way to reach certain key demographics – notably, education. Students who become familiar with a free version of a commercial software package are more likely to use the full version later in their professional careers.