The competition between open-source and proprietary software promises to be the most significant force in IT over the next decade. This rivalry will play out in development labs, in the courts and in the arena of public opinion.
Were not alone in this view, judging from the actions of leading industry players: Novell is remaking itself as a Linux vendor and Sun is embracing Linux and open-sourcing Solaris, not to mention IBMs long-standing advocacy for Linux. For its part, Microsoft is giving open source plenty of attention—as a rival—on its Web site and in executives speeches.
A significant development in open-source software is the forthcoming revision of the GNU GPL. Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and author of the current GPL, and Eben Moglen, general counsel of the FSF, have been reviewing issues that ought to be addressed in Version 3. These include property licensing and patents, software used over a network, trusted computing, and differences in copyright law between English-speaking countries and other countries. Only a small circle of enthusiasts may have paid close attention to Stallmans prior efforts more than a decade ago. This time, the world will be watching.
The open-software process, like democracy, can be inefficient. As Linux creator Linux Torvalds said in an eWEEK Face to Face interview last week, the process of discussion might "waste a ton of time," but anything else "would be a total disaster." It will be important for those who have a stake in open-source software to take part in this process responsibly and accept the result.
The legal challenges that proprietary software vendors may mount will not be without purpose as well—the GPL will need to withstand them to achieve full stature in the enterprise.
The challenge facing proprietary software vendors is to deliver ever-greater value. Microsoft asserts that Linux is actually more costly than Windows, but it seems clear to us that the presence of open-source products in the marketplace is placing downward pressure on proprietary licensing fees—rather than making them seem newly reasonable at their past or present levels.
Microsoft should conserve its resources from a campaign of FUD—fear, uncertainty and doubt—and apply them to improving products in the face of open-source software thats getting better all the time.
Although proponents on either side may believe the optimal outcome is victory over the rival, including disappearance of the rivals business model, we think the best result is ongoing competition between proprietary and open-source software. As IT professionals get accustomed to the nature of the choice before them, we believe this competition will make both competing approaches better, resulting in more functional, more reliable, more secure and more affordable products for the enterprise IT community.
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