Has open-source software lost its halo?

Cynical use by proprietary application vendors is tarnishing the movement, some say

Is open source still a grassroots social movement made up of idealistic underdogs trying to revolutionise an amoral industry? Or has it become a cloak used by IT vendors to disguise ruthless and self-serving behaviour?

Some observers argue it’s the latter. Despite occasional protests from oldtimers — the heated backlash against the Microsoft-Novell détente, for example — open source has become so co-opted by mainstream IT, so transformed by “accidental open-sourcers” simply looking for a better business model, that it’s lost its cherished moral edge.

“Open source has become a free pass for all sorts of competitive actions that would once have been — at a minimum — roundly criticised,” wrote Gordon Haff, an analyst at New Hampshire-based Illuminata in an online piece last month.

Haff cites IBM’s release of its VisualAge software development tools to the open-source Eclipse Foundation in 2001, a move he argues has dealt near-fatal blows to commercial Java Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) such as Borland’s Jbuilder and Symantec’s Café.

IBM also released its lightweight Cloudscape database in 2004 to the open-source Apache Foundation, where it is now known as Derby. Like Eclipse, Derby helps draw companies to Java, where IBM makes a tidy sum — even more than Sun Microsystems — hawking middleware and related tools, Haff said.

But open-sourcing Cloudscape also hurt sales at companies such as Sybase, which made mobile databases the centrepiece of its “unwired enterprise” strategy, as well as open-source vendors like SleepyCat Software (now owned by Oracle) and MySQL, Haff wrote.

“Some collateral damage to competitors in the process is not something that IBM likely regrets.”

Sybase’s chief marketing officer, Raj Nathan, insists the company is doing fine and that its offering remains “superior to any of our competitor’s offerings, including Cloudscape.”

But saddled with disappointing growth in its mobile and embedded database business, Sybase is turning its attention to other areas, such as data integration, to boost revenue growth.

Another example? Take Hewlett-Packard’s backing of the open-source Lustre shared file-system. Lustre helps HP in the high-performance computing arena, while hurting storage competitors like Panasas as well as current HP partners such as PolyServe, says Haff.

Yet few have taken notice of what might be seen as ruthless or even treacherous action because of the positive reputation HP enjoys as a champion — second only to IBM — of open source.

“There’s a lot of self-delusion,” Haff said in an interview. “People need to believe that there are ‘good’ companies and ‘bad’ companies. And they get shocked when a ‘good’ company does something that is in its ... self-interest.”

By contrast, ‘bad’ companies like Microsoft can’t catch a break, argues Haff. For instance, if in the late 1990s Microsoft, then in the midst of the Department of Justice’s anti-trust case, had decided to release its Visual Studio 97 development tools for free, “What do you think the general reaction would have been? Applause for Microsoft’s generosity? Or widespread condemnation for using its market power to make such a transparently anti-competitive attack on other makers of development tools?”

“Eclipse is a bulldozer just as much as much as Microsoft is,” agrees another analyst, James Governor of Redmonk, although he views the situation with more equanimity. “One person’s predatory [action] is another person’s wonderful gift.”

HP did not return requests for comment. Ari Fishkind, an IBM spokesman, says such accusations are “richly ironic, since open source was deemed socialist, or worse, in some circles.”

“Will making open source contributions of value sometimes make other vendors work harder to improve their commercial products, or encourage them to contribute innovative code, too? Probably,” says Fishkind.

“[But true] predatory behaviour is locking customers into a particular platform, or acquiring companies then discontinuing support for a product in favour of an expensive alternative, or menacing customers with patent lawsuits.”

Some say that the sequence of events that critics such as Haff portray is hardly cut-and-dried.

“Just because a big company open-sources a product doesn’t mean it will get used,” says Neelan Choksi, vice-president for Interface21, which makes the popular open-source Spring framework for Java and J2EE applications.

“Open-source is a democracy — people vote with their feet.”

Others like Dave Rosenberg, CEO of open-source enterprise service bus (ESB) provider, MuleSource, argue that in the case of IBM it’s all over-interpreted hindsight.

“Almost nothing can happen in the world without IBM somehow benefiting. So I find it hard to believe that IBM was purposely malicious,” he says. “My impression is that a lot of open-source software comes from big vendors simply because they don’t know what to do with the stuff, so in that respect a community donation is typically a positive.”

Rosenberg is more disturbed by the bandwagon jumpers: the companies, mostly startups, belatedly going open-source in order to “ride a trend,” while paying only lip service to the community and its values.

Take Aras, a provider of Windows-based product lifecycle management (PLM) software that in January decided to go open source. Rosenberg depicted the firm in his blog as an opportunistic Johnny-come-lately.

“I’m not impressed when a company whose software is totally built on Microsoft technologies goes open-source,” said Rosenberg, who even suspects that the company is being promoted by Microsoft “as a shill” to burnish Redmond’s image in open-source circles.

Aras CEO Peter Schroer admits that the company has taken some heat for continuing to bill itself as a “Microsoft enterprise open-source software solution provider,” although he denies the company is receiving extraordinary financial support from Microsoft.

Schroer says going open-source was simply a smart business decision that will help Aras as it would any other open source firm, by reducing marketing costs and speeding up the sales cycle, allowing the company to focus more on technical development and to better create a community of users sharing tips and code.

Moreover, Schroer rebuffs the notion that embracing open source entails signing up to be a card-carrying member of the overthrow-Windows faction.

“Software doesn’t have to run on Linux to be considered open,” he says.

Not all companies that suddenly go open source get criticised. Terracotta, a San Francisco maker of Java clustering software, has garnered nothing but kudos since switching to open-source in December, according to CEO Amit Pandey.

“We are a new company and our product only came out six months before that,” he says. “If we’d waited say a year or a year and a half, we’d probably have run into more resistance.”

The sudden drive for ideological purity is partly due to the confusing period in open-source’s evolution we seem to be in. The prevailing business model is the almost-oxymoronic “commercial open source”. The biggest open-source announcements last year were all by companies traditionally hostile to open-source.

Take Microsoft, which now touts the large percentage of users who run popular open-source applications such as SugarCRM, Jboss and MySQL on top of Windows. The Redmond company also inked that controversial deal with open-source standard-bearer Novell.

Or look at Sun, which finally open-sourced Java last year, or Oracle, which began supporting Red Hat Linux — though its offer received heavy criticism because, as Haff puts it, “Red Hat is reasonably well-liked and Oracle’s move was so bloody flagrant.”

Or take the wave of startups that are adopting open-source business models but shucking the ideological baggage. Like Interface21’s Choksi, who cheerfully admits not having “any religious affiliation to open-source. It’s just how we went to market from the start.”

Redmonk’s Governor believes the numbers of such accidental open sourcers, as opposed to true believers, will continue to increase, because in this age of easily-developed and delivered software, “freemium” business models — meaning a service with a free entry point and a more expensive premium offering — simply make the most sense.

“Success in IT is increasingly defined by what vendors or organisations give away, as much as what they charge for,” Governor says. “The world is moving on. It’s increasingly a commodity business. Brand, packaging in the broad sense, and the service wrapper are what organisations can charge for.”

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