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Degrees of Openness
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

Digital Media and Data Storage Formats Are Proprietary Snares

One of the most potent forms of control exercised by companies wanting to lock in customers, is proprietary data (including digital media) storage. Microsoft's .doc document storage format has been ubiquitous for about 20 years. Open document storage formats, notably Open Document Format (ODF), are finally challenging Microsoft's hegemony and have an excellent chance of succeeding.

Proprietary data formats have long been the norm in virtually all vertical software markets. I've had my share of work over the years, liberating data from proprietary formats and migrating it to open forms of storage (mainly relational databases).

Digial media storage formats present a much greater challenge. The music and film industries need to control copyright infringement. Their approach is with some type of digital rights management (DRM) technology. Advocates of completely open software vehemently oppose any type of closed software, especially when placed within an open computing environment. Another problem is fair use. DRM software often prevents people from making a copy of media they rightfully own, for purposes of backup or for use on a different player. DRM is perhaps the main impetus behind GPL v3.

Computer companies use proprietary digital media formats to lock customers into certain platforms. For example, Apple provides QuickTime only for Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows 2000 and XP.

There has been a small amount of progress recently in the area of digital media. RealNetworks won the use of a Microsoft codec as part of the Microsoft anti-trust settlement. RealNetworks has licensed this codec (as part of RealPlayer) to Novell and Red Hat, for inclusion in their Linux distributions.

Regardless of form, proprietary snares are important to consider when evaluating the openness of a system.

Degrees of Openness Affect Open Source Business Models

Degrees of openness are at the heart of the debate over how companies actually make money offering open source products. What it comes down to is that, to stay in business, companies must find ways to make money offering open source solutions. They often resort to proprietary methods to do so, trying different business models with varying degrees of success. The basic problem is that when you try to collect money for things people can acquire for free, they tend to take the free stuff and not pay you. Even when you try to add value to the free stuff, people tend to take only the free part and look for other ways to acquire your additions.

First, Linux distributors sold boxed Linux sets containing documentation, along with technical support and consulting. This worked until affordable broadband Internet service made it possible for people to download Linux and write it to CDs. Next, companies continued to try selling boxed sets of their Linux distros, but allowed people to download the distro free of charge, charging fees for technical support, training, and consulting. Finally, the most common model today is where a company offers two different but closely related versions of its distribution, a free of charge community version and a paid commercial version. The Linux distributors sponsor the community development groups, then use the community's work as the basis of the paid commercial version. The paid commercial version usually contains software not found in the community edition; this extra software is often proprietary. The commercial version also comes with some form of technical support. The distro vendor also charges a subscription fee for updates. Today's Linux distributors emphasize certification, training, and consulting services heavily.

The problem with these business models is they have no way of assuring the customer won't find other ways to satisfy the tech support and training components. Oracle recently started providing support for Red Hat Linux, at greatly reduced cost, as a means to disrupt Red Hat. Many Red Hat customers are at least considering this new service offering. Regardless, companies such as Red Hat and Novell are working hard to make the model work and are meeting with some success, but it appears unlikely they will grow into behemoths. Red Hat seems comfortable with this; its founder Bob Young once stated that his goal was not to grow Red Hat as large as Microsoft, but to shrink Microsoft until it is as small as Red Hat. All rhetoric aside, it is much easier for a large company to provide a high level of tech support to many users than it is for a small one. Economies of scale are still important in an open source world.

Open source application software companies, such as relational database developer MySQL AB, add a slightly different twist to dealing with the issue. MySQL is available under the GPL, but there is also a commercial license available for people who do not wish to licence and distribute their source code under an OSI-approved license.

The two companies credited with most effectively leveraging open source software are IBM and HP. IBM has created a suite of software by integrating open source components into existing product lines. IBM also derives a significant portion of revenue from consulting services, which also use open source solutions. Finally, both IBM and HP sell a lot of hardware that runs Linux. These companies are successful offering open source solutions for several reasons:

  • Their customer bases are primarily corporations, which demand accountability and are willing to pay for it.
  • They are very large organizations that can control every aspect of production.
  • They are well-branded and their customers trust them.
  • They can very effectively market their products and services.

In short, these two companies have heft. This doesn't mean other organizations can't participate successfully in the market. Companies such as Canonical and Linspire show great promise in working with smaller hardware vendors to service niche markets. Penguin Computing has enjoyed success in the server market, by offering high quality systems built with open source software and industry-standard hardware components. System 76, a newcomer, sells laptops and desktops running Ubuntu Linux and pure open source applications.

Business Issues

Open source users and software developers also need to keep an eye on business-related issues in the open source community. The health of organizations supplying open source technology is critical to the success of open source application developers and users. Oracle's recent acquisitions of Inno Oy and Sleepycat Software cast a pall of uncertainty over the future of MySQL, which depends on Inno Oy's InnoDB engine for important features. Sleepycat was the backup solution for MySQL AB, to provide a new engine had Oracle denied MySQL AB use of InnoDB. Then, Oracle acquired Sleepycat. In the open source world, project forking is the solution to these types of problems. Project forking can succeed (and has), but there are only so many developers to go around and forking a major project causes at least temporary disruption. Novell's acquisition of SuSE and subsequent partnership with Microsoft will provide a fascinating case study of a proprietary company's integration with an open source one.

Impact on Users and Developers

It is unlikely the average individual consumer will apply a comprehensive understanding of openness to his computer purchasing decisions, though these issues can and do effect him. Assessing degrees of openness is most useful to organizations purchasing large numbers of systems and to developers wanting to create sustainable products. Purchasing a large number of bad systems can have an adverse effect on computing capability, operational efficiency, and capital expenses.

System developers face a different set of criteria and challenges. Choosing the wrong set of software and/or hardware components can later cripple an otherwise well designed product. Sometimes you have to be pragmatic and take a chance, based on present requirements and availability. Expediency is often necessary, but can later interrupt your progress and require unanticipated work. An excellent example of this was Linus Torvald's decision to use Bitkeeper as the source code control system for Linux. Bitkeeper's owner later decided to invoke licensing privileges, causing Linus to interrupt his Linux work to develop his own source code control system (called Git). The current conflict between advocates of GPL v2 vs. GPL v3 threatens to create a similar situation, of much greater magnitude. It could derail Linux's current momentum.


The computing landscape is a much different place than it was a few years ago. Open source software has presented both huge opportunity and difficult challenges. The major challenge is the conflict between proprietary, and nonproprietary products. Compromises have resulted in a rather messy entanglement. Users and developers get caught in the middle, often bewildered by the complexity of licensing and technology. Technology itself gets caught in the center of this conflict. The politics of today's computer industry would have delighted Machiavelli. Any methodology or way of thinking that can delineate and define these complex relationships will empower users and developers to arrive at better decisions. There are many aspects to the openness and propriety of computer technology. It pays to consider these before making commitments.

The examples used in this article are not a comprehensive list of all possible combinations of open, closed, proprietary and nonproprietary components. These examples serve to illustrate key aspects to consider. Companies continue to introduce novel combinations of licensing, openness and propriety in their technology.

Perhaps the final question is whether a pure non-proprietary open source software marketplace is possible.

Adrien Lamothe developed his first computer program in 1976 and never looked back.

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