Commercial software’s days are numbered, says Apache chairman

At a recent conference, Greg Stein of the Apache Foundation looked to the future and saw an all open source world. Paul Krill reports

The days of selling software through the traditional commercial model are numbered, as open source is becoming the model of choice, says Greg Stein, chairman of the Apache Software Foundation.

Speaking at the EclipseCon 2006 conference in California last month, Stein noted that software is becoming increasingly commoditised and that more of it is available for free.

He cited the OpenOffice office automation package as an example of free software to replace Microsoft Office.

“As the [open source] stack grows and grows, and takes over more areas, there’s less money available in packaged products.

“All of your software [will be] free. It means that, over time, you aren’t going to be paying for software anymore.” Instead, pay for assistance with it, Stein advised during his keynote speech.

He estimates that in five to ten years, most software used today will be free.

“The notion of a packaged product is really going to kind of go away.”

Eventually, a free software project will overtake a commercial effort in functionality, as there are almost always more developers in the open source community, he noted.

Making money in software will involve selling assistance services for functions such as installation, configuration, maintenance, upgrading, testing and customisation, while basic software components themselves will be free in Stein’s vision of an open source dominated industry.

One audience member was not so willing to concede the software market to open source, however.

“I think there’s always going to be a spot for commercial, closed source for specialised tasks, but the base infrastructure will be more open source or easily available,” noted Danny D’Amours, computer systems officer at the US National Research Council.

Commercial, closed source software will not go away “because there are so many small niches that people will be able to exploit or be able to make commercial solutions [from],” he argued.

In other parts of his presentation, Stein discussed the evolution of software licensing and compared Apache with Eclipse.

“A licence can ruin a perfectly good piece of software,” he noted.

“A bad licence can make it so restrictive that nobody wants to use [the software].”

Licensing has taken various forms, ranging from the traditional proprietary licence used by Microsoft, IBM and Oracle, to Microsoft’s somewhat less restrictive Shared Source licence, to the all-access GNU General Public Licence (GPL), which has caused problems, Stein said.

“The GPL is sometimes considered viral in that it grows out to the entire software package, requiring the release of all code affected by it.”

Even licences associated with Google (where Stein is employed), Yahoo and MSN are closed, he noted. “Their software is also closed. It’s proprietary; you can’t get at it.”

Stein cited patents as an issue for open source, particularly in the area of standards.

“Standards that have patents in them are going to be very difficult and one of the big areas in the future that are going to cause problems for open source.”

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