Open source is here to stay

Red Hat founder Bob Young takes on John Taschek's assertion that open-source development is a dead end.
Written by Bob Young, Contributor
I feel badly for PC Week's John Taschek ("Open source is an open road to nowhere"). Not understanding one of the biggest shifts in the industry since the PC in the early '80s is a career-limiting mistake for a journalist who specializes in covering technology.

New technology models don't succeed if all they offer is better, faster or cheaper alternatives to the established market leaders. They have to offer benefits to the user that the old technology model could not deliver. The PC was not better, faster or even cheaper (on a per-user basis) than the mini-computer of the late '70s. But it did deliver benefits to its users that minicomputers could not.

The misunderstanding that John is suffering from is illustrated by his completely unsubstantiated claim: "Open source has gained so much momentum without showing any goods. It's a dot-com -- all hype and speculation and no fundamentals."

Here are a few of the fundamentals that John is missing:

Linux-based OSes have the leading market share of Web servers powering the Internet's public Web sites, with 31 percent of all sites, according to a Netcraft study. The next most popular OS has only 20 percent.

Linux-based OSes represented 24 percent of all new server shipments last year, up from 15 percent the year before. Linux-based OSes are the only OS with growing market share, according to figures from IDC.

Open-source e-mail routing tool Sendmail handles 80 percent of all the e-mail traffic on the net, according to Netcraft.

More than 61 percent of all public Web sites are powered by the open-source Apache Web Server, IDC reports.

DNS and Bind, the Domain Name Server tools that route all your URL requests across the Net, may represent as much as 100 percent market share, according to a Gartner Group study.

In effect, the Internet itself would not function without the open-source tools that power it.

Linux is not even an operating system. It is the kernel of the operating systems that engineers at Red Hat and others, including the Debian team, build. It is the poster boy of a movement much larger than operating system kernels, operating systems, Internet Server applications or any other specific technology.

If the open-source software-development model as practiced by companies like Red Hat were just about better, faster or cheaper technology, Marc Ewing and I would still be operating out of our spare bedrooms. But it's not. Open source delivers a benefit to its users that they cannot get from any of the suppliers of proprietary binary-only products like Windows.

Open source gives the user the benefit of control over the technology the user is investing in. This benefit is perfectly obvious to every programmer and system administrator I've ever spoken to, but it is sometimes tough for nontechnical journalists to grasp.

The best analogy that illustrates this benefit is with the way we buy cars. Just ask the question, "Would you buy a car with the hood welded shut?" and we all answer an emphatic "No." So ask the follow-up question, "What do you know about modern internal-combustion engines?" and the answer for most of us is, "Not much."

We demand the ability to open the hood of our cars because it gives us, the consumer, control over the product we've bought and takes it away from the vendor. We can take the car back to the dealer; if he does a good job, doesn't overcharge us and adds the features we need, we may keep taking it back to that dealer. But if he overcharges us, won't fix the problem we are having or refuses to install that musical horn we always wanted -- well, there are 10,000 other car-repair companies that would be happy to have our business.

In the proprietary software business, the customer has no control over the technology he is building his business around. If his vendor overcharges him, refuses to fix the bug that causes his system to crash or chooses not to introduce the feature that the customer needs, the customer has no choice. This lack of control results in high cost, low reliability and lots of frustration.

With open source, companies like Red Hat are able to treat our customers as partners in the use of the technology they're building their businesses around.

Having control over the technology they are using is the benefit that is enabling users of open-source tools to build more-reliable, more-customized and lower-cost systems than ever before.

John, you are welcome to continue to insist that this open-source movement cannot continue to succeed. Just don't try to claim it isn't succeeding. With partners like Dell, Oracle, IBM, Compaq, SAP, Computer Associates, Netscape, Intel and thousands of others, and the large and rapidly growing market share figures shown above, this thing is big and getting bigger.

Bob Young founded Red Hat with Marc Ewing in early 1995 in their spare bedrooms. Since then Red Hat has become a global company, with a very strong balance sheet and $42 million of revenue, and continues to grow rapidly. While the opinions expressed are Bob's alone, it is safe to say that Red Hat's opinion, if we could figure out what it was, would be similar. The opinions of all other corporations mentioned are unknown at this time.

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