Marten Mickos, CEO of open source database company MySQL AB, was motivated by the recent controversy over SAP executive Shai Agassi's remarks about open source to write the following perspective piece. In his view, some companies really support the notion of open source software, which he says will "define the next generation architecture for the modern enterprise," and others say nice things about it, but really don't support it.
In Swedish we say “Döm inte hunden efter håren” – something that came to mind when I saw the debate on Shai Agassi’s comments on open source. Literally this saying translates into: ”Don’t judge the dog based on its fur.” It conveys the thinking that outer appearance may not properly represent inner qualities. And there is another saying – about the “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Those two sayings agree that appearance may not be representative of approach. One is about nice honesty falsely represented, the other about false honesty nicely represented.
When it comes to closed source companies reflecting on open source, we have this very same dilemma. Some closed source companies publicly praise open source only to fight it in reality. Some others are not afraid of criticizing open source, because they in reality are great fans of it. Fortunately, open source benefits from both criticism and praise.
If you complain about open source, you will likely generate a counter-effect in the community, fixing whatever problem you complained about. If you praise it, you will elevate open source even further. At MySQL, for example, we have benefited greatly from our critics who have pointed out our flaws. They told us exactly what we needed to do to improve our products. And we did. The same phenomena have made the LAMP stack the fastest growing platform in the industry.
Most recently, Shai Agassi of SAP was reported as being critical of open source. It is indeed true that SAP AG produces closed-source software and perhaps it is convenient to conclude that they would be against open source. At the same time, SAP is the first and most significant ERP vendor to publicly, officially and in actuality embrace open source. SAP was the first enterprise ERP vendor to ship on Linux. SAP has an investment in Zend, the PHP company, and a strategic partnership with MySQL. By its actions, SAP is one of the great supporters of open source.
Sun is another company that has not been afraid of engaging in the public debate on open source, many times airing criticism of this movement (at least earlier). But look at OpenOffice and OpenSolaris and you will have to agree that Sun indeed is a strong supporter of open source.
Simultaneously we have other players in the industry saying publicly the nicest things about open source, but in practice not supporting it at all. So when we observe the legacy players of the industry, we must see through the words and examine their actions.
Some companies play on both sides of the fence. Microsoft, for instance, recently struck a partnership with JBoss and some time earlier they released their first software components under open source licenses.
The leading enterprise software companies face a dilemma when it comes to open source. Should they fight open source and blame it for causing turmoil in the industry? Or should they embrace it and thank the open source community for bringing new innovation into the industry? Or should they ignore open source and hope it will go away?
The wise business leader realizes that open source provides an opportunity– a way to find new business models and new growth. Perhaps open source can commoditize the infrastructure components and make applications more affordable. Perhaps open source is a way to reach new customer groups and expand the market. Perhaps open source will invite new technological solutions that were not available earlier.
Whatever the role of open source, I believe it will define the next generation architecture for the modern enterprise. Those who adopt it in earnest will be entitled and encouraged to air both their positive and negative thoughts about it. And those who don’t adopt it may spread FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) as if open source is some kind of disease that must be quarantined and treated. Or they may be even more disingenuous and hide behind a veil of faint praise while privately working against open source, trying to control it and ultimately extinguish it.
At the end of the day, deeds count more than words. If you support open source, you will be supported by the millions in the open source community who are working hard to shape the future of the software industry. The only question will be which companies will be a part of that future and which will be destined to obscurity.