Open Source: Money versus Mindshare

Is it a Proprietary World and Open Source Just Lives In It?

This morning I read with interest the musings of He Who Will Forever Blog (aka Matt Asay) on the topic of how proprietary software and the money that comes with it will always be forever entwined with open source (and, by extension, free) software.

I've got to say, I don't see where he's wrong about this.

Granted, Asay's being a bit provocative, and certainly the so-pithy-you-will-bleed headline writers at The Register help that provocation along. In the article, Asay calls it how he sees it: that the "vast majority of software isn't written by 'open-source companies.' It's written by proprietary software companies or by non-software companies, like financial services firms, who write software to satisfy internal needs."

Open source software, he continues, is either produced by companies who are not defined as open source (re: Google) or open source companies that may be using some sort of proprietary/open core/dual licensing model just to meet the bottom line. And the "pure" open source companies (like Red Hat) are likely just future acquisition targets for--you guessed it--proprietary software vendors.

(In the face of an expected web press conference by Red Hat for a "major announcement" next Wednesday, one wonders if Asay isn't hinting at something coming down the line. Probably not, but my Spidey-sense is a'tingling.)

Asay paints a realistic picture of the economics of open source, but that picture is viewed through a more traditional capitalist filter. The market is the market is the market, in other words, and no fancy-schmancy open source model is going to change that fact that companies who want to succeed in that market have to play by its rules.

So let's ask ourselves: is the very open source nature of a company or its products something that can transcend the market as it exists today? If that is indeed the case, then maybe Asay is being too short-sighted, we could argue. But some have argued that open source along is not a business model.

At best, writes my colleague Stephen Walli, "Open source software is a key economic driver from an engineering efficiency and software reuse perspective, but it also opens new opportunities and additional tools for product management to engage better with customers and improve both the top line and the bottom line."

I think, no matter how you try to hold up the open source model as a unique way of doing business, companies that use open source are still working in a market driven by other factors and dominated by proprietary vendors who can use better funding to achieve what successful open source companies can do with better mindshare.

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