"Instead, I would say that closed source software is augmenting our open source deployments," Wood says. "For example, using commercial business intelligence tools against MySQL, or running Oracle on Linux – open and closed source products complementing each other, and enhancing the value of both."
This is the reality of enterprise IT today, and it's a situation with which the traditional, proprietary software industry has yet to fully come to terms.
One of the most disruptive effects of open source is its tendency to commoditize certain categories of software. For example, the Web server market is dominated by the open source Apache, and small database installations are increasingly the purview of open source databases. What commercial company would bother to compete with these offerings when their feature sets are so rich and standardized?
Rather than seeing commoditization as a threat, however, Wood suggests that it could be an opportunity. "[Commoditization] could be a great thing for customers as software vendors, both open and closed, start to compete more on quality and support than pure features and cost," he says.
The Linux market has always taken this approach. When Linus Torvalds first released his code on the Web, installing Linux meant downloading and assembling the code yourself. It was only when third parties began packaging the Linux kernel along with other software into complete "distributions" that Linux became accessible to a broader audience.
Each distribution was based on the same fundamental code, but each offered slightly different performance tweaks and internal configurations. Friendly competition encouraged the distributions' maintainers to continually strive to improve their products.
Eventually, some of those distributions became so polished – and so popular – that they began charging customers money. At first, they tried selling the distributions in retail boxes, but that model didn’t reach the core audience. Eventually, the distributions that catered to enterprise customers focused their business around support and maintenance. In other words, customer service became king.
"Five years ago, when we started doing subscriptions, it was considered different," says Red Hat's Evans. Today, Red Hat's subscription-based support agreement is considered one of the model examples of how a company can build a successful business around open source.
"Once you get past features, software is about support," says Wood. "You could pay $1,000 a year for the software and receive support for free, or get the software for free and pay $1,000 a year for support. From the customer point of view, I would argue that the latter is always the better bet. When you need support, you may actually get what you paid for."
Of course, proprietary vendors have always offered support contracts. But with their high overheads, they have to charge a lot more to offer the same level of service as a lean open source company.
Evolution or extinction
Such challenges lead some to insist that proprietary software is destined to go the way of the dodo.
"There will likely always be proprietary software companies, but over the next 10 years, I would expect them to become the exception and not the norm," says Dave Rosenberg, CEO and co-founder of open source ESB vendor MuleSource. "The rise of open source has barely started."