15 August 2007

O'Reilly? I Think Not

Once again, Matt gets it, and Tim doesn't:

"I will predict that virtually every open source company (including Red Hat) will eventually be acquired by a big proprietary software company."

Thus spake Tim O'Reilly in the comments to one of his other posts. Tim believes that open source, at least as defined by open-source licensing, has a short shelf-life that will be consumed by Web 2.0 (i.e., web companies hijacking open-source software to deliver proprietary web services) or by traditional proprietary software vendors.

In other words, why don't I just give up, sell out, and go home? I guess I would if I thought that Tim were right. He's not, not in this instance.

There's something more fundamental going on here than "Proprietary software meets open source. Proprietary software decides to commandeer open source. Open source proves to be a nice lapdog to proprietary software." I actually believe that open source, not proprietary software, is the natural state of the industry, and that Tim's proprietary world is anomalous.

I particularly liked this distinction between the service aspects of software, and the attempts to view it as an instantiation of various intellectual monopolies:

Suddenly, the license matters more, not less, because it is the license that ensures the conversation focuses on the right topic - service - rather than on inane jabberings that only vendors care about. You know, like intellectual property.

And there's another crucial reason why proprietary software companies can't just open their chequebooks and acquire those pesky open source upstarts. Unlike companies who seem to think that they are co-extensive with the intellectual monopolies they foist on customers, open source outfits know they are defined by the high-quality people - both employees and those out in the community - that code for the customers.

For example, one reason people take out subscriptions to Red Hat's offerings is that they get to stand in line for the use of Alan Cox's brain. Imagine, now, that proprietary company X "buys" Red Hat: well, what exactly does it buy? Certainly not Alan Cox's brain, which will leave with him (one hopes) when he moves immediately to another open source company (or just hacks away in Wales for pleasure). Sure, the purchaser will have all kinds of impressive legal documents spelling out what it "owns" - but precious little to offer customers anymore, who are likely to follow wherever Alan Cox and his ilk go.


Ross Gardler said...

I posted a loosely related item on our team blog recently, in it I suggest:

Different licences not only differentiate between the options available to users and developers, but they also differentiate between the type of community that can be developed around an open source product.

My comment was focussed on the open source licences effect on community. However, as you observe it is more general than that. Some significant members of a community will be bought, others will set far too high a price.

Original post from the OSS Watch team blog.

Glyn Moody said...

Exactly. Despite their apparently arcane nature, licences really do lie at the heart of open source.