Despite successes, FLOSS still misunderstood, villianized

Corporations still not getting open source, deliberately or otherwise

Despite increasing evidence that corporations are turning to open source more than ever, there's also countering evidence that people have a long ways to go before they "get" open source.

The notion that innovation is driving open source adoption now is a theme that's been woven heavily in my conversations with open source community members these past couple of weeks. More and more I am getting notes about organizations that have never used open source as a methodology before, now starting to deploy it in their in-house development departments or joining in existing FLOSS projects.

[FLOSS: Accept no substitutes]

But juxtaposing these positive experiences are the reports of the outright ignorance other companies and individuals are showing when they fumble their way around open source.

Perhaps the largest example of this is Oracle's recent bumbling release of Java SE 7, complete with show-stopping bug in the Hotspot JVM. Neil McAllister has the best examination of this egregious set of errors that led to the buggy Java release, even though Oracle was aware of the problem five days before the release.

McAllister is shocked, shocked! by this knowledge, but for me it's par for the course when talking about how Oracle deals with their open source product lines. For Oracle, the priority is always going to be the bottom line, and even though the Hotspot bug was spotted and understood in time to prevent its release, Oracle was unwilling to delay the five-year release of Java SE 7 any longer because of that bottom line.

This can be circled back to the observations made last week about OpenStack, which has enjoyed quite a bit of community success with its cloud computing projects, even as it's a wholly owned subsidiary of Rackspace. In my comments last week, I argued that it may indeed be possible for a commercial company to successfully form and lead a community, as long as they keep governance in the hands of community, and not themselves.

Oracle is clearly the proof of that observation, holding tight control of the Java Community Process to the point where, predictably, its needs outweigh those of the community and even the final product itself.

But perhaps my favorite example of how people don't really understand how open source and free software works comes from none other than Paul Therott, the noted observer of Microsoft. Therott weighed in on this week's Google-Microsoft patent Tweet-o-spat, lashing out at Google's comments as nothing less than hypocritical in the face of Google's own patent activities.

You can read Therott's blog for yourself and come to your own conclusions, but the statement he made that really caught my eye was how Google's business plan for Android actually qualified as anti-competitive, which echoes Microsoft's own antitrust arguments filed against Google in Europe last March:

"And I'd also point out that Google licenses Android for free. So by raising the price of Android by imposing licensing fees on technologies Android is in fact using, Apple, Microsoft, and others are arguably simply leveling the playing field and taking away an artificial Android advantage, forcing the OS to compete more fairly. Arguably, by 'dumping' Android in the market at no cost, Google--which has unlimited cash and can afford to do such a thing--is behaving in an anticompetitive fashion. In fact, one could argue that Google is using its dominance in search advertising to unfairly gain entry into another market by giving that new product, Android, away for free. Does this remind you of any famous antitrust case?"

Therott's statement above wraps up with some irony, when he points to Google's business practices as looking very similar to another company's antitrust case. But that irony can go up another level, since it was the testimony of Microsoft in their 1999 antitrust case that first drew national attention to Linux when Microsoft witnesses touted Linux as a viable competitor to Microsoft. Apparently Microsoft's admiration for Linux and related technology only lasts as long as FLOSS doesn't seriously disrupt their own business.

Android is, depending on who you ask, either a cousin to Linux or just another mobile Linux distribution. Either way, it's understandable that Google would distribute Android for free, just like Linux, because their revenue model is not dependent on the sales of the operating system, like Apple's and Microsoft's models. Red Hat, SUSE, Canonical, Mandriva, and all the other commercial Linux vendors distribute their Linux distributions for free (in source and/or binary form), too: does that make them anti-competitive as well?

I hold no illusions that Linux on the desktop is hardly worth Microsoft's concerns, but in the face of Therott's comments, I have to wonder that if history had gone a different direction and Linux had indeed succeeded on the desktop, would Linux vendors and OEMs now be looking at a slew of patent infringement lawsuits just to "level the playing field"?

I also hold no illusions that Google is releasing Android for free out of some sense of altruism for consumers and device vendors. They are doing it because (a) the free and open source licenses on their upstream software sources enable them to and (b) they want to get control of the mobile platform because it will ultimately drive more eyeballs to their services and (holy-of-holies) the advertising.

The truth is, Linux and FLOSS software gives vendors the opportunity to use alternative revenue streams other than the old per-license revenue model, which puts Apple, Microsoft, and all the other proprietary vendors at a distinct disadvantage. But is it appropriate to call these revenue models anti-competitive? Red Hat and SUSE make their money on support, training, and some licensing fees. This works for them because there's little if any license fees tied into the software used to created their enterprise distros. Proprietary vendors would have a big problem shifting over to this kind of revenue model because there are a lot of licensing fees wrapped up in their software offerings.

The fact that people would seriously consider free-as-in-beer software revenue models anti-competitive reflects a level of closed-mindedness that is unfortunately still pervasive in corporations, perpetuated by proprietary software vendors who are unable to shift to new business models because they themselves are trapped within their license, patent, and business requirements.

"Free" doesn't mean "anticompetitive": it's the freedom to try new things, whether implementing a new idea or a different way of making money. It's not a gimmick, it's not a trick: it's freedom, plain and simple.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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