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Competing with Open Source

© September 2003 Tony Lawrence

Link: Testing the Intel C++ Compiler

This is a review of Intel's compiler and debugger. Obviously only a very serious coder would even consider paying a good chunk of cash for functionality that comes free with Linux, but the reviewer makes the point that if you are doing this professionally, a tool that does what you want is worth paying for.

This reminded me of a recent Newsgroup exchange where a corporate type made the comment that the "viability of Open Source is yet to be proven". What he meant was that he isn't sure anybody can make any money with a business model based on free software. I think that's obviously incorrect: the business becomes support and service; customization and porting. Of course that does mean that anyone else is free to compete with you, and that's an idea many traditional businesses don't like.

My feeling has always been that you don't worry about competition. If you are good at what you do, you'll get your share of the pie. If you aren't, well, you don't. Go do something else. It may well be true that smaller firms can do better with that model than larger organizations, but I don't see that as a bad thing in any respect. Concentration of wealth has advantages, but it also has consequences, and sometimes those consequences include grand economic turn-downs. As with computers, distributed systems (as represented by many autonomous actors rather than a few mega-corps) are more resilient and can react faster to market changes. The down-side is that you don't get the concentration of money that allows the pursuit of very expensive projects. However, enlightened self interest has now and then caused people to band together to reap the benefit of group wealth or labor; I think we call that "government" most often, but it also happens quite informally: many Open Source projects are testimony to that.

Darl McBride obviously disagrees (from Open Letter to the Open Source Community):

Finally, it is clear that the Open Source community needs a business model that is sustainable if it is to grow beyond a part-time avocation into an enterprise-trusted development model. Free Open Source software primarily benefits large vendors, which sell hardware and expensive services that support Linux, but not Linux itself. By providing Open Source software without a warranty, these large vendors avoid significant costs while increasing their services revenue. Today, thats the only viable Open Source business model. Other Linux companies have already failed and many more are struggling to survive. Few are consistently profitable. Its time for everyone else in the industry, individuals and small corporations, to understand this and to implement our own business modelssomething that keeps us alive and profitable. In the long term, the financial stability of software vendors and the legality of their software products are more important to enterprise customers than free software. Rather than fight for the right for free software, its far more valuable to design a new business model that enhances the stability and trustworthiness of the Open Source community in the eyes of enterprise customers.

A sustainable business model for software development can be built only on an intellectual property foundation. I invite the Open Source community to explore these possibilities for your own benefit within an Open Source model. Further, the SCO Group is open to ideas of working with the Open Source community to monetize software technology and its underlying intellectual property for all contributors, not just SCO.

In other words, he doesn't like free software and thinks Linux needs to be "monetized". Great word, too bad it doesn't mean what he thinks it does..

Aside from his poor vocabulary, maybe "Linux" does need to be a product with a price tag to keep companies like SCO solvent, but it's just not going to happen. Even if you could somehow invalidate the whole damn thing, wrap it up in copyrights and patents and stop everyone else from giving it away, it's like trying to drown tennis balls in a barrel: the stuff will keep bobbing up, again and again. People will keep writing free software, web sites like this will continue to publish free content, and the cycle will repeat. The genies are out of the bottle, and it would take an awful lot to put them back in. In fact, only legislation could even partially do it, and if that actually happened, I think it would just drive it underground.

There is still room for Darl's sort of business: if you really can make a better compiler, debugger or whatever, people will pay for it. For the reviewer referenced here, apparently Intel didn't quite make the grade, but that doesn't mean someone else can't. It does mean that your product needs to be a superlative version of the genre you are marketing into, but that just makes it better for all of us.

By the way, if SCO had a free personal use Unix back in 1991, Linus Torvalds probably never would have written Linux: he would have happily used SCO. But SCO didn't do that until much later (and has since killed the concept). So isn't it good for us that the management then was typically greedy and unenlightened? I think so.

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