Friday, March 17, 2006

Response to an article

Dear Editor:

In his column "When open source thinks of revenues", Mr. Wilson Ng states that, based on a BusinessWeek article, the future of open source software could be grim. Conversely, then, might we not also say that the future of open source could be bright?

Mr. Ng does not identify the specific article in question, but I suppose it is the one entitled "Open season on open source" posted on March 13, 2006. The article ponders the situation now that big-name companies like Oracle are acquiring companies working on open source projects.

The BusinessWeek article is purely speculative. Nevertheless, far from being a negative mark on open source, couldn't this be taken as an affirmation of the quality of work produced in the open source method? A major IT vendor like Oracle does not buy companies willy-nilly, but acquires them because they produces something of value.

Open source is not of itself a business model but rather a method for developing software. It is not one big project but rather a modern method by which projects are undertaken. It is a collaborative manner of developing software whereby the software and its source code are made freely available.

As a software development method, we have to judge its success or failure by the quality of the products that has been produced under its model regardless of the motivations which prompted it. Mr. Ng himself points to the success of Linux, Apache, PHP, and other open source applications which run critical business and Internet systems.

Really, Mr. Ng should know because his company's own web site, ngkhai.net, runs on Linux, Apache, PHP, and an open source content management application called Wordpress.

Like any good idea, it is inevitable that some entrepreneurs would build a business model around it. Will all such business models be successful? Not necessarily. Will they all be failures? Not necessarily, either. As a successful businessman, Mr. Ng should know that as with any business venture, there are both opportunities and risks.

Is open source threatened because of the possibility of acquisitions? It depends on your view of the world. If you think that the number of problems for which you can address with software is finite and limited, and the number of ways in which to solve them is likewise finite and limited, then the future is grim indeed. But that is not the case. There are several needs, and therefore several opportunities, some of which can be addressed by open source software.

Software exists because it fills a particular need. As with any product, people pay the asking price because they perceive its value, whether that is for a software license or for service. As a matter of economics, if a similar product fills that need at a lower price (or even free, as in the case of some open source software), then the logical alternative would be go for the latter. People, as a rule, do not necessarily want to pay a good amount of money, especially when they do not have it.

Two other points in Mr. Ng's article that I wish to address:

* Mr. Ng says that the open source movement was created by programmers who were willing to stay late night hours writing code for the heck of it. Not so. Seminal work on open source was done by Richard Stallman who was appalled by greed of software companies and who thought that software should be free. The open source definition was put together by Eric Raymond, Bruce Perens, and a host of other people who studied the open source software development method in depth, and found it a viable alternative to a controlled development environment. Further reading in this matter can be found in Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar."

* Mr. Ng implies that Sun and IBM are giving away their operating systems. More accurately, Sun has open sourced its Solaris in an effort to get more developers to contribute to its operating system. IBM has not open sourced any of its proprietary operating systems but has instead opted to contribute heavily to the improvement of Linux.

Thank you for your time.

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