Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Business Value of Open Source

There is an interesting article on business value and open source software on Linuxworld.

The article is an interesting look into why one should consider participation in open source communities. There are a few things I would add though.

The first is that businesses which even use open source software, and whose sysadmins participate on the email lists, are influencing the development of the software in ways which are not possible with closed source software. Indeed the wall which exists in closed source software between support and research and development does not exist in open source projects. The core developers help with technical support, and such feedback allows them to make future versions better. This work also largely replaces market research in determining which features need to be included in the product. I.e. discussions on the email lists allow people to determine what the current users or would-be users need. This also allows successful open source projects to better meet the needs of their users.

Open source promotes a sort of community economy which is fundamentally different from the consumer economy it replaces. Personally I disagree with Richard Stallman regarding the dangers that closed source poses to open source. Indeed I cannot think of any instance where a closed source product has successfully replaced a dominant open source product in an established market. Yet there are plenty of examples where open source products have successfully challenged proprietary applications in certain markets.

Take for example Apache. The combined market share of Apache and the open source NCSA web server (which it replaced) has always been high, but not in all web server markets. Indeed, until recently, Apache was not considered a strong contender for web application servers (this market was held by Sun, Netscape, and Microsoft web application servers). However, in recent years, companies have begun to use Apache in this roll in increasing numbers. Apache is the clearest rebuttal to the concerns that open source is threatened by closed source appropriation of its source code because the license explicitly allows this. Yet none of the commercial versions are able to touch the marketshare of the original project.

A second, weaker, example is that of open source UNIX workalikes. This includes the BSD's as well as Linux, and have always been prevailent in environments where technical skills have been more prevailent than financial resources (such as servers for ISP's, and niche uses in such agencies as NASA). However, in recent years, Linux has moved into the mainstream server market, helping to marginalize Netware and proprietary UNIX. BSD varients are continuing to grow, though more slowly. Linux has also moved into embedded devices to threaten such operating systems as QNX, Embedded Windows XP, and possibly even Windows CE in the smartphone market.

Thus, the shift from closed source to open source, like the shift from feudalism or communism to capitalism, is a one-way process and cannot likely be reversed once the new system is established.


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