Access to source code doesn't trump vendor control

As open-source vendors grow in strength, the value of source code diminishes as a guard against vendor lock-in.

Red Hat announced that it's buying Qumranet, the company behind the KVM open-source project. This is interesting because Red Hat already supports Xen, a competing open-source virtualization technology. Most of you know that XenSource, the company behind Xen, was acquired by Citrix. Rumors have floated about Microsoft buying Citrix for some time. Red Hat probably wanted more control over its destiny in the virtualization arena. Controlling the KVM open source project, vs. playing second fiddle to Citrix, gives Red Hat this control.

More control over its destiny is likely why Google decided to launch Chrome itself. One would have expected "Do No Evil" Google to work with the open source community to build a new browser. Or at the very least, Google could have taken its ideas to Mozilla. But doing so would mean forfeiting ultimate control that comes from being the project's owner.

I'm beginning to think that the more a vendor controls a project, the less that source code availability is a guard against lock-in for paying customers.

Said differently, "Source code availability equals freedom" is slowly becoming another open source myth for paying customers. Note that I exclude "users" from this statement as I want to distinguish between entities that have higher switching costs. I'm making the assumption that as a paying customer, the use of the open source software is relatively important to their business. As such, switching costs entails more than just the yearly license/support costs.

If MySQL, SpringSource, Alfresco, JBoss, SurgarCRM, Red Hat, etc. do something that your company doesn't like, what are your real options? As a paying customer, you've signaled that support is important to your business. Hence, self support isn't likely an attractive long-term option. You could try to find a new support provider, but will any third-party vendor have the experience or the resources to support and further develop the product to the same degree as the original vendor?

I vote no.

Keep in mind the category of open source vendor I'm talking about here. Good luck forking any of them with significant commercial success. Expect to see more moves that consolidate open source project control, as established vendors have realized this fact.

Note, however, that the end result is not wholly different than a customer using a closed-source product. I'm merely pointing out that availability of source code, like a dollar, doesn't buy as much as it used to. The reason? Because vendors aren't in the business of sharing control.

P.S.: I should state: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies, or opinions."


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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