Microsoft: Open source is too complex

The software giant admits open source's flexibility is great, but says this has given rise to a complex Linux environment that developers will find costly and tough to grapple with.

Although open-source software can be customized to meet a company's specific needs, its inherent complexity could dent the profitability of independent software vendors (ISVs), says Microsoft.

"One of the beauties of the open-source model is that you get a lot of flexibility and componentization. The big downside is complexity," Ryan Gavin, Microsoft's director of platform strategy, said on the sidelines of the company's worldwide partner conference in Boston last month.

Gavin noted that the flexibility of open-source software in meeting specific business needs also means systems integrators and ISVs have to grapple with complexity costs. "It's challenging for partners to build competencies to support Linux, because you never quite know what you're going to be supporting," he added.

"Customers who run Linux could be operating in Red Hat, [Novell's] Suse, or even customized Debian environments," he explained. "You don't get that repeatable [development] process to build your business over time."

Lim Han Sheng, general manager of IBS Synergy, a Malaysian software vendor specializing in chain-store management applications, agreed: "We had to learn [how to build on the] different versions of Linux distributions to meet the demands of customers."

IBS Synergy had started developing products for the Linux platform back in 1998 but gave Linux the boot in early 2004, and now builds its software on the Windows platform. Lim said this was because the company's developers were spending more time hunting for Linux technical support on the Web, and had less time to focus on actual development work.

But another ISV noted that, ultimately, customer choice usually converge on only a couple of Linux variations.

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Yap Boon Leong, business development director of Resolvo Systems, a Singapore-based ISV that develops software for the Linux platform, agrees that there are multiple Linux distributions in the marketplace, but said the choice of distributions among enterprises usually boils down to Red Hat and Suse Linux.

As such, ISVs only need to be familiar with these two distributions, negating any complexities that may arise, Yap said. "But for the consumer market, where there is a larger pool of Linux distributions (which include Mandriva, Fedora, Ubuntu and Xandros) being used, ISVs will have to grapple with complexities," he said.

Partners focus on profits, not technical support
Microsoft's Gavin said partners often look for help in marketing and lead-generation activities from software vendors. "The lack of business [support] and the focus on technical issues among Linux vendors does not translate into profitability [for the partners]," he explained.

Citing a recent study from research company IDC, Gavin said ISVs that build applications for Linux systems grew their revenues by 3 percent between 2003 and 2004. Last year, that number shrunk further to 1.6 percent and is "very small compared to the growth rates of the underlying [Linux] platform," he noted. According to IDC, the worldwide Linux server market posted a year-over-year revenue growth of 17 percent during the first quarter this year, despite a 1.9-percent decrease in the overall server market during the same period.

But somewhat contradictory is a study conducted by the Banc of America Securities in June this year. The investment bank surveyed 130 Red Hat partners and found that most were upbeat about their Red Hat business, which they expect to grow by more than 31 percent this year.

When contacted by ZDNet Asia, Harish Pillay, manager of partner development at Red Hat Asia-Pacific and president of Singapore's Linux User Group, declined to comment for this story.

A check on Red Hat's Web site, however, revealed a flurry of partner programs catered for resellers, systems integrators and hardware makers, among others. The Linux vendor also provides opportunities for partners to take part in its marketing activities. In addition, from Aug. 17 this year, Red Hat will kickstart its Open Source Symposium in 14 Asia-Pacific cities, in an effort to debunk any myths and doubts about open-source software.

Of late, Microsoft has also softened its stance against open-source software. It created an open-source lab at Redmond to improve interoperability between open-source software and Microsoft products.

And as part of its shared-source initiative, the software behemoth also set up an online repository called CodePlex for developers to engage in collaborative projects.