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There Is No Open Source Community

by John Mark Walker
01/12/2006

Conventional wisdom says that powerful individuals drive open source by working against the grain to institute a methodology of sharing that would balance the power between software vendors and users.

While this makes for an entertaining narrative, there is quantitative evidence to the contrary. The reality is that placing too much emphasis on individual players in the open source movement ignores overarching economic trends that drove open source development and adoption.

Furthermore, taking the position that individuals have pushed open source forward leads to the conclusion that a core group of ideological "believers" is necessary for the continued success of open source software. Businesses unaware of the falsehood of this claim are too afraid of running afoul of the "open source community" and sometimes make decisions that are not in their financial interests.

Both open source-based and proprietary software vendors need to challenge these assumptions. An updated open source mentality has profound implications for businesses looking to leverage open source in commercial ventures. Reevaluating the open source equation in economic terms presents a different takeaway. The commoditization of software and a gradual, long-term reduction in price have played far more important roles than previously recognized. Business strategy designed to leverage open source should focus more on economies of scale (in terms of user and developer bases) and less on pleasing a mythical, monolithic community.

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Some software vendors believe that open source is an ideological movement. This paradigm ignores the impact of software prices shattered by zero-cost distribution and global collaboration capabilities, both of which the internet fuels. It also ignores one of the primary factors driving customer adoption: rebellion against vendor lock-in. By combining lower cost of production with the additional freedom and flexibility endemic to open source deployments, one sees two dynamics driving both adoption and production. The push of software commoditization and the pull of customer demands have created a perfect storm for open source software.

This new perspective has implications for other areas, such as TCO and potential legal obstacles to open source. I argue that TCO is largely irrelevant when one takes the larger view of open source evolution. As for legal pitfalls, we believe that economic principles prove this fear is largely unfounded and that any legal impact on open source from patent infringement or copyright violations will be limited in scope. Regardless of who leads the charge, what legal obstacles are thrown in its path, or whether there is any provable TCO advantage, open source will continue to expand its grip on IT.

The Conventional Wisdom

Open source conventional wisdom tells a tale of good versus evil, David versus Goliath, in a struggle to protect users from the malevolent intent of large software companies. The narrative usually begins with Richard Stallman, upset with printer manufacturers releasing binary-only drivers that prevent him from fixing bugs in the software. From there, the story includes the founding of the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) as a means of ultimately producing a free operating system.

Conventional wisdom recognizes this as the official birth of the free software movement, an idealistic and political movement that specifically sought to protect the freedoms of computer users. This is in contrast to the open source movement, which pitched open source software production as a practical means to better software. The GNU project was working on a free operating system kernel--the last piece of the free operating system puzzle. Unfortunately, the project found itself stuck on a microkernel architecture that proved unwieldy from an engineering standpoint. Then, in 1991, Finnish computer science student Linus Torvalds wanted to run Unix on his PC. He blindsided the FSF by producing a free operating system kernel called Linux that meshed with the other GNU software to produce a working Unix-like system.

Linux and GNU continued to grow, drawing interest from an increasing number of free software contributors. Somewhere along the way, the BSD operating system became unleashed from its AT&T shackles, making for a more mature competitor eager to capture the Unix-on-PC enthusiasts. The BSD process proved to be less open to collaborators, and it frowned on free software idealism; thus more developers flocked to GNU on Linux, making it the undisputed heavyweight in the PC Unix space. In the latter half of the 1990s, some contributors grew uncomfortable with the "free software" name, due to both confusion over its meaning as well as uneasiness from its idealistic underpinnings. These contributors were in favor of emphasizing the pragmatic aspects of free software development without all the GNU baggage inherent in the term free software.

A major part of open source lore is the famous meeting in 1998 that included Larry Augustin, Tim O'Reilly, Eric Raymond, and others at O'Reilly headquarters. The group there coined the term open source. Aside from drawing the ire of Richard Stallman, who wanted to emphasize the freedom of free software, the term proved a raging success among developers looking to participate in open software collaboration. Eric Raymond wrote the essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," which influenced Netscape as it deliberated releasing an open source version of its web browser software.

The open source bandwagon gained steam, with a core group of supporters pushing for its continued growth. Spokespeople such as Raymond and Bruce Perens helped lead the charge with articles and appearances in various media outlets. Developers such as Torvalds and Brian Behlendorf pushed open source forward on the engineering front, with the Linux kernel and the Apache web server often cited as open source bellwether projects. These two projects have continued in this role to this day. Large high-tech companies such as IBM helped legitimize both and made them more enterprise-worthy.

Despite the nascent success of open source software, there has been increasing concern about potential pitfalls, such as patent infringement claims from large software companies including Microsoft. Many fear that Microsoft, often seen as an enemy of open source, is looking for the right opportunity to spring a patent infringement trap. Further fueling some of these fears is the copyright infringement by the Linux kernel claimed by SCO when it filed its lawsuit against IBM. While largely seen as unfounded, SCO's claims have led to some open source leaders calling for such things as more audits of open source code and legal indemnification from open source software vendors.

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