So Open Source Is Mainstream -- Now What? - InformationWeek

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1/31/2008
01:16 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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So Open Source Is Mainstream -- Now What?

This may not be "the year of Linux on the desktop" -- and who knows, maybe it is -- but there's little to no question that this is a pivotal year for open source as a mainstream economic phenomenon in the tech world, as my colleague Charles Babcock has indicated.  My big question is: what next?

This may not be "the year of Linux on the desktop" -- and who knows, maybe it is -- but there's little to no question that this is a pivotal year for open source as a mainstream economic phenomenon in the tech world, as my colleague Charles Babcock has indicated.  My big question is: what next?

For one, it seems that open source will become, if not the predominant mode for software development, then certainly the one that will win moral favor over closed source.  "If your software isn't good enough to win recognition in the marketplace through free download, then it's not good enough," Charles asserts in his above-linked piece.

Does this mean that all the major closed source dealers -- Microsoft, Oracle, and so on -- will be magically transformed into open source shops?  Probably not.  In their case, I see two possible scenarios in the short run:

1. They'll be forced to make their closed-source offerings so good that people won't want anything else.

2. They'll over time be painted into a corner where more and more of their work is offered in some kind of shared-source (although maybe not wholly open source) format.

Now, people have been edging in these directions for a while.  Right now Microsoft is offering a few things under a shared source license, and it's not as if the source for Windows itself has been completely unavailable.  Said source just requires more of an outlay for licensing than most people can afford, and its re-use is deeply restricted.

Also, these two scenarios are not mutually exclusive.  It's entirely possible for Microsoft to attempt to keep one foot in each bucket, and maybe only realize after a great deal of pain that it's going to be open source for them or nothing.  (I'm falling back on Microsoft as my main example if only because it's so convenient.)

A third scenario is actually something that many of the existing open source vendors already use: dual licensing.  Imagine, for a minute, a version of Windows (Windows 8? who knows?) that's available as a free and open source product, but without the corporate or advanced-user functionality or add-ons, all of which are available as closed-source, for-pay bonuses.  Support also would be a for-pay thing -- either for individual users or for corporate clients.

A big reason, I suspect, that Microsoft hasn't seriously entertained the possibility of completely opening its products (at least not before) is because of what could be called the "OS/2 quandary".  There may be code licensed from other parties that cannot be opened as easily as their own code.  If Windows was rewritten entirely from the inside out -- and there's hints that "Windows 7" may be something of that kind of project -- with all third-party code expunged and replaced, that might be easier to undertake.  And of course there's the fact that by doing so, they completely negate the possibility of remaining a vendor that one can remain locked into, which has been a big source of their revenue.

If open source continues to vigorously gain traction as a business model amongst software developers, Microsoft and its ilk will suffer one of three fates in the long run: a slow death where they are whittled down by competition not restricted as heavily by onerous licensing and costs; a trimming-down -- either slow or fast -- where they adopt open source as a way of life; or they somehow remain lone holdouts by dint of offering something that, for whatever reason, people still want to pay for.  And of course there's the chance that open source will turn out to be an unsustainable bubble akin to Web 2.0 -- but if you ask me, the two couldn't be more dissimilar, for reasons I'll explore in a future blog post.

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