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Leave Virginia Alone: On Open-source and Proprietary Threats

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While it used to be that the term “open source” conjured up socially lost Linux cave-dwellers, in recent years, open source has gone decidedly mainstream. Even if you don’t partake in dedicated offerings such as Firefox, Chrome, Adium or Android, there are probably open-source components in much of the software that you do use. But while the number of open source-focused startups is on the rise, proprietary software players are also increasingly acquiring open-source companies, and in the process, altering the courses of important platforms and applications. These aren’t necessarily good trends.

Matt Asay recently predicted that this year would usher in lots of acquisitions of small cloud computing players by big software companies, specifically citing open-source players such as Cloudera (which supports the ever more popular Hadoop, an open-source query platform) as potential targets. Meanwhile big-ticket acquisitions of open source-focused companies have proliferated, as evidenced by Oracle’s (stalled) acquisition of Sun Microsystems, VMware’s SpringSource buy and its rumored purchase of Zimbra, among others. (The Zimbra acquisition may be confirmed this week, according to numerous reliable sources.)

One has to ask, though, how healthy it is for increasingly important open-source platforms and applications to come under the wing of huge, proprietary software companies. Probably the best example to cite on that topic is the ongoing car crash that is Oracle’s proposed acquisition of Sun Microsystems. Sun, of course, is an almost entirely open source-focused company, and the European Commission has spent nearly a year considering whether to allow Oracle to acquire it. In the meantime, Sun customers have flocked to competitors.

There are concerns that Oracle may shut down Sun’s MySQL open-source database division, as it competes with some of Oracle’s proprietary products. MySQL founder Monty Widenius has been aggressively echoing such concerns, and has a blog at petitioning for support. In light of some of Sun’s other open-source offerings, and overlap with Oracle’s products, Oracle may in fact likely let several projects linger.

Even Google’s involvement with its own open-source Android operating system could inhibit free development around it going forward. For Google, one of the big benefits that all Android phones bring is steering users into the company’s lucrative search-and-ad ecosystem. With the release of today’s Nexus One Android-based phone — which takes the company’s commercial stake in Android handsets to two (Droid being the first) — could Android itself be increasingly influenced by Google’s proprietary interests? Just as Microsoft leverages Windows for the benefit of its own applications, Google could do the same with Android. The Open Android Alliance is already developing versions of Android devoid of Google applications due to these types of concerns.

Sun Micrososytems is one of only three big, U.S. public companies focused almost entirely on open source. If it gets swallowed up, that will leave just Red Hat and Novell. Open-source pundits are predicting that small, promising open-source players will be snapped up by bigger fish this year. And Google’s relationship to Android gets ever murkier as it sinks its commercial hooks deeper into the platform, billing its own offerings as superphones relative to other Android phones.

In his post “What Rankles in Open Source Buyouts,” Dana Blankenhorn takes the position of an enthusiastic open-source community member woefully witnessing the sale of an open-source project to a big software company when he addresses the project’s leaders, imploring: “There is such a thing as moral equity. What was us is now you, and you sold out — why shouldn’t I be offended, and why should I trust anyone like you again?” Indeed, for many of the suddenly flourishing open-source platforms and applications out there, independence and the unbeaten path may lead to the brightest possible community-driven future.

In-post image courtesy of Flickr user me and the sysop.

8 Responses to “Leave Virginia Alone: On Open-source and Proprietary Threats”

  1. @Justa — yes, a proprietary parent can have a positive impact on commercial open source companies and efforts but there still are lots of proprietary software companies that have predatory attitudes toward promising open source projects. The power of free, or nearly free, alternatives to costly software can, for example, be an incentive for a proprietary company to block a promising open source project, up to and including buying it to kill it. As commercial open source really starts to get its legs right now, there is a lot to be said for independence and freedom, IMHO.


    • sgtrock


      While there may be some validity to what you say, what prevents anyone else from forking a project that gets bought out for the express purpose of killing it?

      Take a look at what happened to the XFree86 project, for example. In that case, the project lead unilaterally decided to impose a license that many found too onerous to accept. The end result was that all of the Linux distributions, the BSDs, and even the various flavors moved over to a competing fork. Everyone was up on the newer platform in less than 6 months with little loss of functionality and little to no disruption experienced by their userbase.

      Better yet, the forked project saw an immediate influx of developers that have really pushed the envelope with new features (Compiz, for example, came out of Novell’s initial contribution to the project).

      In sum, I’m not afraid of any company trying to gobble up FOSS projects. The really neat thing about FOSS is if the itch is bad enough, some collection of independent developers will find a way to scratch it. :)

      • Very well said sgtrock. Most of the people who worry about “open source going down” make such mistakes in their understanding.

        1) They tend to view the open source dynamics with a proprietary software lens. To understand open source needs a complete mindshift. It is wrong to see the success of open source using the market success parameter of the proprietary world.

        2) One has to believe in the freedom offered by open source licenses to overcome any obstacles that is posed by proprietary software vendors who acquire OSS.

        I am glad you pointed out to perfect examples in support of your arguments.

  2. Justa Notherguy

    One has to ask, though, how healthy it is for increasingly
    important open-source platforms and applications to come
    under the wing of huge, proprietary software companies.

    Well, Sebastian, as with many things in life the answer to that question is, ‘It depends.’

    If, for example, that proprietor’s overarching ‘wing’ tends to stifle innovation, crush all dissent, and/or quietly do away with products that tend (or even appear) to compete with the proprietor’s main business efforts…well, that would be bad.

    On the other hand, if their ‘wing’ tends to spearhead the drive to innovate, push for greater partner-involvement, and/or husband increased output of products which promise (or even appear) to benefit the proprietor’s main business efforts…well, so what?

    In other words, the real questions should be: (1) Since when is acting in self-interest necessarily bad? and (2) Shouldn’t we judge a tree by it’s fruits? (Apol. to the apostle Matthew.)