Taking a cynical view of open source

It's more like a religion than a movement, says Howard Anderson

I chaired an interesting meeting the other day. It was me against senior executives at Cisco, Agilent Technologies and Novell.

The subject was: Do enterprise users really want open source? Are you strongly supporting this?

Open source is not a movement; it's a religion. It is a set of principles and practices that let everyone share non-existent or semi-existent intellectual property. Remember the Communist Manifesto: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." It is this generation's Woodstock.

Back to my meeting. The vendors were tripping over themselves swearing allegiance to the open source movement. It was like Republicans genuflecting at the graven image of Ronald Reagan. They were testifying that the Really Smart Enterprise Users (RSEU) were demanding, actually demanding, lots of solutions here. And each of them was going to be first in line.

Naturally, I disagreed — partially because I am a naturally disagreeable person, but mainly because allegiance to open source depends on who you are.

Let me give you an example. If you are number one or number two in your industry, you hate open source. You make your money by selling proprietary solutions — examples include Microsoft and Cisco. If you are number three to number ten, you look at open source as a way to get back to those RSEUs, because they are where you make money.

Re those users who are on your faltering proprietary system, you want to keep them there. For those who abandoned you or never even considered your proprietary systems, on the other hand, open source is your Last Good Chance. In any case, if you are number one and number two, you will support the concept — as little as possible but as loudly as possible.

Thus, you see Microsoft and Dell supporting Novell as Novell takes on Red Hat. You really don't want your users wandering off the reservation, but if they must wander, then better they not wander too far. So, key vendors like Microsoft try to convince their users that while open source is an option, it's an option that they really don't want. In other words, flirt with it, just don't do it. Or do it as little as possible.

How about if you are a user? Your real goal is to drive down the cost per transaction each year. Theoretically you love the idea of open source, but in actuality it scares the crap out of you.

There are non-strategic potential uses, but what you really want is for your vendors to reduce the cost of their proprietary systems. Your entire plan is to commoditise your vendor; their entire plan is not to let their product or operating system be commoditised.

Some bold users actually will have open source as part of their master plan; some will find that their smartest young computer-application designers will migrate here naturally because it is "cool" and they are true believers. They may actually have some open source projects just to keep this next generation happy.

From your perspective as a mainstream, commercial IT shop, you are playing a different game. If there was a viable open source solution, your strategic vendors would have to price their proprietary solution at a minimal premium over that solution. The better the open source solution, the smaller the premium.

So it all ends up as a mutual game of bait-and-switch: The vendors want to sell their proprietary solutions but feel a need to have a "commitment" to open source, so they get invited to the party. The users want to have better and cheaper options but don't really want to bet their future on open source (unless they are universities or non-profits and that is the best they can do).

A cynic might suggest that the people writing open source software are the ones who are making their daytime living working for a proprietary-solutions vendor and spend their nights tearing down the very house they live in. And that if open source replaced proprietary solutions, these people would not be able to make a daytime living that supports their night time hobby.

A cynic would be right.

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