Open source acceptance is not the end of the world

Open source has much to be thankful for this Christmas. It has breached the citadel. It has achieved a level playing field, in most application spaces, with proprietary alternatives. Customers of all sizes have a choice. But the market war goes on.

To many writers 2009 is a year where open source crossed the final frontier of complete acceptance.

Our Doug Hanchard at ZDNet Government believes it was a close-run thing.

In some ways he is right in that. Had a few legal decisions gone the other way, or had John McCain won the Presidency, open source would not be where it is today, especially in the markets Doug covers.

But in many ways open source was inevitable.

  • Open source rides on the Internet.
  • Open source is global in nature.
  • Open source is not FOSS.

Let me talk about each of these in turn.

Open source rides on the Internet -- It's the economics of Internet development and Internet distribution that made open source inevitable.

Since the day I got my first PC, in 1982, we have had shareware, and freeware, and programmers anxious to distribute their stuff for the sake of seeing it run. But floppy disks and even BBSs failed to give open source the universal distribution the retail channel gave Windows and Word.

Once that channel was opened, moreover, these programmers found they could collaborate with colleagues across the planet. Software is math, and a Java program written in Tanzania runs just like one written in China or Atlanta.

Both these factors made it inevitable that the monopoly-like profits enjoyed by proprietary companies would be challenged. Once they were, and companies were free to choose between code they could see and code they could not see, the final triumph was a matter of time.

Open source is global in nature -- Global cooperation on development is just part of the puzzle. There is also the lack of a global law. And Adam Smith's invisible hand.

Suppose the SCO case had gone the other way. Fact is U.S. law is not universal. Europe does not recognize software patents at all. Would Singapore or China have accepted second-rate status in software forever, knowing there was an alternative in open source?

Every state is sovereign, but nations must compete just as companies must. Open source drops barriers to entry for all kinds of software development. This is irresistible to any country, or company, that has fallen behind.

Open source is not FOSS -- Whenever I read notes or blog posts from people complaining there is no way to make money from open source, I feel an urge to remind them of this.

FOSS is important. It forces all companies, including those using open source, to keep costs down, and prevents profit margins from getting too fat. But making code visible is not the same as making it useful.

Drupal would probably not be running Whitehouse.gov were it not for Acquia, the commercial arm that lets Drupal users find professional help.

Paid support, SaaS, and all the other open source business models make the code a viable alternative to proprietary alternatives, by creating the infrastructure enterprise buyers need to move forward with confidence.

Open source has much to be thankful for this Christmas. It has breached the citadel. It has achieved a level playing field, in most application spaces, with proprietary alternatives. Customers of all sizes have a choice.

But the market war goes on. The balance among FOSS, open source and proprietary solutions will continue to shift, in 2010 and beyond. I hope to be here to cover it for you.

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