CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—When is “open” not so open? Industry leaders debated this topic and others related to the future of open source software at Harvard University over the weekend.
Among the major issues discussed at the Cyberposium 2004, an annual technology showcase put on by the Harvard Business School here, was the issue of open source versus open standards, a topic that could become more important in procurements, as evidenced by the recent IT procurement policy set by the state of Massachusetts, which switched from a planned focus on open source to a focus on open standards and “best value.”
The state of Massachusetts last week issued a new IT procurement policy that specified best value as the primary criteria for assessing what to buy for state systems. Previously, state officials had proclaimed open source was going to become the preferred target for acquisitions, as have other states and countries recently. Industry executives discussed this issue and others during a couple of panels at the Harvard Cyberposium.
“Often when these proposals are put into place, governments come back and say, We want to purchase software based on value,” said Jason Matusow, manager of Microsoft Corp.s Shared Source Initiative.
Dan Frye, director of the Linux Technology Center at IBM, said, “If we sit down with a government, we want to be able to say whether we should approach it with proprietary or open source.”
Added Simon Phipps, chief technology evangelist at Sun Microsystems Inc.: “Its dangerous to mandate any form of technology whether open source or proprietary.”
In an off-the-cuff remark, Mike Tiemann, chief technology officer at Red Hat Inc., in Raleigh, N.C., said, “[Mandating open source software] is far less serious and immoral than the United States willingness to export democracy by force.”
More on point, however, Tiemann asked: Can proprietary software be an open standard? Or can open software become an open standard without going through a standards process?
Still, open standards versus open source represents a potential key issue in the emerging procurement process—particularly for governments, some say.
“The standards question is very deep,” said Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and professor at Harvard Law School. “The need for standards is like the [U.S. presidential candidate Howard] Dean campaign: Whether you like him or not, its grassroots—the campaign is standard-less.”
Tiemann said open source represents a “user-driven” model of innovation. “There are users that argue 85 percent of all innovation comes from suggestions and implementations by users,” he said.
IBMs Frye added that open source “introduces market forces into every element of the IT stack. The customer base has choice. It returns an element of control to the user.”
Stormy Peters, Hewlett-Packard Co.s open-source program manager, said open source “gives more choice to users.”
Suns Phipps, however, disagrees with that because “I dont know many users who can break down source code.” Phipps later added, after a pitch for Suns Java Desktop System, which offers a simplified, Linux-based open source desktop: “The vast majority of users cant program; they cant even spell programming. The question is how to have a broad and diverse end-user community who are not techies. We see open source moving out of the geek space and into the human space.”
Matusow said the concept of a development model for sharing code has been around for quite a while. Yet, “from Microsofts perspective, success comes from community,” he said. “Look at the Win32 APIs—thats a successful community of developers.”
“Open source is a meritocracy,” said Chris Stone, vice chairman of Novell Inc. “When there is a problem its like a bear on honey or bees on honey.”
To which Zittrain quickly quipped: “No, its like the Amish on a barn.”
The panelists pointed to some of the areas of innovation and opportunity in the open-source world. Asheem Chandna, a venture partner with Greylock, a Waltham, Mass.-based venture capital firm that was the original investor in Red Hat, said he sees merging opportunities in the database world, the security arena, and the area of building a licensing business around open source. Chandna cited open-source database maker MySQL, open-source security systems supplier Sourcefire Inc. and software intellectual property risk management solutions provider Black Duck Software Inc. Meanwhile, Tiemann said with Red Hats acquisition of storage infrastructure provider Sistina Software Inc. last month, “we see storage as an area ripe for commoditization.”
HPs Peters said open source has indeed tended to commoditize certain aspects of the software industry. “Theres a commodity line, and over time the commodity line is moving up. Linux is commoditizing the operating system level, and that line is moving up.”
IBMs Frye added, “We have a very large, profitable proprietary [software] business” while the company also is investing heavily in open source. “We are comfortable playing in both worlds, and we dont see them competing. Proprietary software is not going away.”
Peters noted that although “proprietary software will be around for a long time,” the open-source movement has seen to it that certain areas are well-covered by open-source technology. “If we need a Web server, we dont need to build one; we can use Apache.”
Open source: A “wonderful model,” according to Novells Stone. “I can go grab [open-source technology] and use it and put it into my commercial model.”
In addition, Stone said the open-source development model “is something we believe in and we also believe in the ability to make money at it. … We spent $250 million buying a couple of companies [SuSE Linux and Ximian] and we want to try to recoup that.”
Alan MacCormack, professor at Harvard Business School, asked the systems makers on his panel whether they felt their companies were leaving money on the table by not having their own Linux distributions.
“You cant do everything,” Frye said. “You have to choose where youre going to ally and where youre going to compete.” He said IBM has chosen to play in five main areas: hardware, software, services, community and distribution. IBM competes in the areas of hardware, software and distribution, and allies with others in the areas of community and distribution, he said.
“I dont think Sun has really ever wanted to have a distribution up to this point,” Phipps said. “We flirted with it.”
Meanwhile, open source ushers in a new world of freedom and a new world of questions surrounding licensing, said Douglas Levin, president and chief executive of Black Duck Software. “A lot of the [open source] licenses are not clear” and that is challenging to potential user organizations, he said. “There are 49 open-source licenses and 25 unauthorized but commonly used licenses.”
Regarding licensing, “this whole thing has gotten so blown out of proportion its not funny,” Stone said.
“You need to look out for a viral effect,” he added. “I think SCO [The SCO Group Inc.] has done a disservice to the entire [open source] movement by claiming they own the entire Unix that is within Linux, which by Novells perception is a bunch of crap—which is why we indemnify it.”
Microsofts Matusow said Microsoft stands apart from the open-source proponents on the issue of indemnification. He said rather than indemnifying a certain version or piece of software like many Linux providers offer, “Microsoft has indemnified every product we do.”