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Is Open Source Dying? Case Not Proven

Michael Hickins recently published a piece on eWeek entitled Is Open Source Dying? The title drew me in, and no doubt plenty of other folk too. But the article doesn’t prove the case, although it contains some interesting points that merit discussion.

Most of the article concerns speculation about the experience of government with open source, and the motives of vendors such as IBM. I prefer to judge companies and individuals by their actions, rather than speculation about their motives, and there is plenty of evidence that IBM, for example, takes open source very seriously. There’s plenty of open source in WebSphere, for example.

I’m going to pick up on just two points. The first, is the statement that:

The Free Software Foundation and Linux continue to engage in a pissing match over some of the terms of GPLv3, making the open-source community seem, once again, like splinter groups of some radical political organization more interested in winning arcane theological disputes than actually taking power.

This reflects one of the most widespread fallacies about open source. Open source is not a single monolithic movement, and nor should it be. The fallacy becomes more obvious when I paraphrase it:

Oracle and SAP continue to engage in a pissing match over [insert latest issue], making the closed-source community seem, once again, like splinter groups of some radical political organization more interested in winning arcane theological disputes than actually retaining power.

That quote is equally meaningless.

Open source is no more a single entity than “closed source.” And many closed source companies compete fiercely and criticize each other at every opportunity. I’ve heard CEOs of large closed source companies make cheap shots at competitors in keynotes that made me cringe. Different closed source vendors are proponents of different models such as perpetual licensing, subscriptions and software as a service, and many vigorously argue why theirs is the only true path. As for licensing, there are many licenses for closed source software and they are harder to categorize than the various major groups of open source licenses. Does that mean that closed source software is in crisis? Absolutely not. Competition between models and philosophies is generally healthy, and fosters customer choice, and open source is no different.

Furthermore, mature vendors, both open and closed source, realise that it is in the interests of customers to mix match both kinds of license to build solutions. The agenda of open source companies should not be to “take power,” but to deliver great software that gives customers choice. License fundamentalism regarding open or closed source is naive and counter-productive.

However, the conclusion of the article is spot on:

...the open-source community needs to get over its overweening sense of superiority and messianic inevitability; the alternative is just good enough that if it doesn't get its act together, open source may find itself the subject of retrospectives like "Remember Unix?"

I agree. Most decision makers care about outcomes, TCO and quality software. The development and distribution model is secondary. I believe that open source products should never sell themselves short. They should aim to provide the best solution in their space, and to innovate: not compete on price. Open source projects and businesses who believe that they are destined to inherit their space are likely to be intellectually lazy and deserve to fail, for the good of users.

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