It comes down to a five-letter word, value. Or its plural, values.
When folks like Matt Asay look at value, they are looking at the value of their employers and the value they can extract from customers. There is nothing wrong with this attitude. You wouldn't be worth much in business without it.
Looking at the valuations placed on open source companies, and what they're worth in hard times like these, it can be hard not to be discouraged.
Red Hat has fewer zeroes in its valuation from its market share than a proprietary company would. The same goes for Alfresco and all the other enterprise players.
That's because of another definition of value, the one understood by users and thus customers. The value from eliminating distribution costs, cutting marketing to the bone, and reduced friction in markets is going to them.
Open source is an incredible deal for customers big and small. There is immense value to be derived from controlling your own code, and for getting programs free of charge.
This is value which, for the most part, we don't have to share with vendors. Enterprises now have their own code bases. They have a choice between building, buying and (now) taking enhancements.
Trouble is of course this value goes to our bottom line. This value no longer belongs to the industry, but to the economy as a whole. User value does not give them vendors value. Hence they see open source as destroying value.
Which brings me to the third value, the word values as used by open source advocates like me.
This third definition of values tries to mediate between the other two. It is a moral imperative, asking that users share the value they gain in open source with other users, even (sometimes) with competitors.
This can be hard to grasp.
Cogswell Cogs is deriving enormous value from its open source use but must share that with Spacely Sprockets? Placing this in the fictional world of The Jetsons lets you see just how big a leap this is. (The show is a product of the mainframe era, the 1960s.)
Yet that is precisely what open source values call upon us to do. It is why articles like this, equating a nation's adoption of open source to protectionism, strike advocates as so silly and vendors as so right.
From a vendor's perspective this is exactly what countries are doing, closing their markets to alternative approaches by mandating open source.
But from the advocate's point of view, that mandate will also require sharing not only within that market but between markets, not only between developing markets but with developed ones as well. Where is the loss, they ask?
We can see the loss right now. We have just gone through a period of enormous value destruction, $5 trillion in the U.S. alone.
Open source does not promise to bring even a tiny fraction of that back to the tech industry. As companies with open source code cut back they become less likely to share, interested only in maintenance and self-protection, not the general welfare.
Which brings me back to values.
The storm will ease in time. Growth, or the prospect of growth, will return. Companies did not lose their code bases during the storm, as they might have had they been forced to cut license payments.
The recovery from this current downturn could be quite sharp, thanks to the value, value, and the values of open source.