Has Open-Source sold out?
Open source has been accused of being like many things – communism and cancer, to name just two – but now it’s tarred with the worst C-word of all: commercialism.
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The popular idea is that open-source software is a grass-roots movement that isn’t owned or controlled by anybody. However, open-source organisations such as Firefox developer Mozilla are raking in tens of millions of dollars every year, and companies based on open source are now being funded by venture capitalists and getting snapped up by the multinational corporations.
Sun bought MySQL for a hefty $1 billion, for example, while Red Hat snapped up JBoss for $350 million. Novell took over SUSE, Citrix picked up XenSource, Nokia is buying Trolltech – the list goes on.
This is a definite trend. In Open source M&A Comes of Age, a report on mergers and acquisitions, the 451 Group said: “Through the first nine months of 2007, open-source deal flow essentially doubled each quarter. We tallied just three deals in the first quarter, six deals in the second quarter and 13 deals in the third quarter. And, although the fourth-quarter pace slowed a bit, with eight transactions, we expect the number of open-source deals to set a new record in 2008.”
When open-source projects were developed out of failed commercial products – Mozilla’s Firefox out of Netscape, OpenOffice from the Star Office suite – you could see this as a useful form of recycling. But the idea of founding open-source companies based on volunteer programmers, then selling out for vast wodges of dosh, sounds more like exploitation.
Even Microsoft now has its own approved open-source licences, its own CodePlex repository, and its own open-source community around the Port 25 site. But as Microsoft platform strategist Nick McGrath said, bluntly: “We see the value in selling software licences: that’s our primary business model.” Then again, a company built on “developers, developers, developers” is going to go where they go, as far as it can.
Whether we like it or not, open source has become big business. And what business intelligence firm Pentaho calls POSS – Professional Open-Source Software – is the way things are heading. The question is whether open source is selling its soul along the way.
IBM started it
Until the 1970s, a lot of computer software was free because it came bundled with expensive hardware, usually from IBM. But while customers liked the idea, it didn’t help the nascent software industry, or IBM’s rivals, such as Control Data Corp (CDC), Burroughs and Sperry.
All that changed on 23 June 1969, when IBM – under pressure from antitrust cases from CDC and the US government – announced that it would unbundle most of its software. Customers weaned on free software were shocked to find they now had to pay. However, it helped to create a thriving market for third-party programs.
Bill Gates gave early microcomputer users a similar shock in February 1976 when he published “An Open Letter to Hobbyists” saying: “Most of you steal your software.” Microsoft had written a Basic language for the pioneering MITS Altair micro, but more than 90% of them didn’t pay for it. “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?” Gates added rhetorically.
But such complaints didn’t stop people from sharing code, and in the 1980s, today’s free software movement started to develop on both sides of the US.