What the open source industry stands for

Commentary: Don't judge the Linux industry by some obnoxious loudmouths. It's out to sell a product and open source provides the advertising.

Commentary: I read Iain Ferguson's "Linux: Time to take the next step" piece on ZDNet Australia recently and thought he had captured the zeitgeist of the Linux industry market well: if we were still in 1998.

But this is no slight on Iain.

He's calling it as he sees it. It's the open source industry which hasn't done the best job of articulating where it stands. Something we intend to rectify in the coming months.

In order to understand why we have not always been on-message, we need to establish some context. First and foremost, the open source community and industry do not have one voice. They are a federation of thousands of firms and a million enthusiasts globally. There is no single chain of command and no filters in place to stop anyone and everyone from speaking their minds. This is how all open communities work.

It does sometimes result in unfortunate situations where loudmouths spray verbal bile on any journalist who draws their ire. However, judging the Linux and open source realm by the behavior of the obnoxious few would be like judging the English, the people who gave us both Newton and Shakespeare, by the behavior of a clutch of soccer hooligans.

Open communities, like open democracies, cannot silence their constituents. There's no point in trying and more importantly, nor should we. In this way and in many others, the open source realm cannot be equated to a vendor such as Microsoft nor should it be held to the same standards for communicating a consistent, manicured and conspicuously massaged message. Industry observers should take this into consideration before casting judgment over an entire community. Just accept that this is the way things are.

Let's now move forward with some observations. The open source industry is a distinct segment of the open source community. The community is not out to sell you a product, solution or service. The industry is. In Australia, this industry presently constitutes over 200 businesses. These are real, profit-driven entities, focused on servicing existing and new clients through real product and service offerings, based in-part or in-whole on open source technology.

While many of these businesses adopt an evangelical stance with the open source technology they sell, this is no different to what Apple or Microsoft has done in past or continue to do today: it ensures the wider adoption of that particular technology. It's also more effective than advertising.

It does not mean that open source businesses are not serious and keen to make headway into the corporate and government sectors. In fact, it is the sheer competitiveness of many of these open source businesses which causes them to butt heads with the likes of Microsoft. Because, just like Microsoft, all open source industry members are for-profit entities. Winning business with corporate and government customers is exactly what they are on about.

Let's establish another truism while we are at it: all open source software is commercial. Open source licenses are not anti-commercial; they are anti lock-in. There is a big difference. Removing the possibility of vendor lock-in is good for end-users. Support this stance when you see it. Furthermore, there have been open source vendors selling solutions in this space for over 15 years. Open source is not suddenly going 'commercial'--it always has been.

The open source revenue model is one based on a service revenue stream rather than a license revenue stream. This fosters competition amongst vendors for any class of software. In effect, open source licenses are the epitome of friction-free capitalist enterprise. Such strong competition helps establish a real software ecosystem. One based on a level-playing field. Vendors only keep customers through better service and quality outcomes, not through proprietary APIs and document format lock-in. This benefits users through better service delivery at lower costs. Support this stance too, when you see it.

You will note that Microsoft touts the benefits of ecosystems too, but neglects to mention that in the Windows ecosystem, they are the 12-ton Carcharocles Megalodon, the 20 meter (extinct) relative of the Great White Shark. They overshadow and dominate every other player in that space.

The open source industry knows and understands that businesses do not make IT decisions on 'religious' grounds, which is why these are not used to sell open source IT solutions. Note however that we can't stop others from outside the industry from invoking non-business advocacy arguments. We will also not shy away from robust competition with proprietary software vendors such as Microsoft and SCO, particularly if these vendors cast doubts on our industry's efficacy and integrity. Such robust competition is, after all, what makes open markets work.

And while few of Microsoft's customers want to show Microsoft the door, they all welcome the increased competition and pressures on pricing that the open source industry is now just starting to deliver. In fact, this is signaling the beginning of a new bargaining strategy available to all Australian enterprises. One made possible only because the open source industry is delivering viable, strong solutions to these same customers.

And it's working well. When asked in a recent interview about the effect of this pricing pressure in the recent massive discount Telstra obtained from Microsoft by playing the Linux card, head of Telstra's technology division, Ted Pretty, had this to say: "Do I think that the whole open source debate put pressure on Microsoft to rethink its approach to its customers, rethink its pricing and do all of those things? Absolutely."

But what is the business driver for firms considering the adoption of open source software? Paraphrasing Nicholas Carr (who wrote the high-impact "IT Doesn't Matter" piece in Harvard Business Review) some popular forms of software are now commoditized. Many organizations have not realized this. They continue to procure expensive forms of that software, even though these deliver little additional strategic benefit. Open source software is the personification of commoditized software, to be used in lieu of expensive software.

Why is adopting Linux and open source technology harder than it should be? Is it because the solutions or the vendors are immature? No. There is a much simpler reason. Most enterprises have by now locked themselves into the proprietary products, proprietary APIs and proprietary document formats which are the staple ingredient from the likes of Microsoft.

The costs of migration away from vendor lock-in are extremely high. It's hard to escape Microsoft. It's not hard to adopt Linux.

Which is exactly what Microsoft wants, as it offers up a smorgasbord of customers who are unable to flee the Windows, Office and Exchange franchises for better, more secure and lower cost alternatives. Unless these same customers take their own IT future seriously and start making plans to neutralize these vendor strategies, they will forever find themselves trapped within the high walls of proprietary lock-in, paying far too much for what has now become commodity software.

The open source industry will be doing all that it can to try to lower a rope-ladder for them to make that escape. Wish us luck.

Con Zymaris is a director of Open Source Industry Australia, Limited.