On the face of it, open-source software has been gaining ground of late. The much-anticipated draft of GNU GPLv3 (GNU General Public License Version 3) has been finally published, giving the open-source community an opportunity to finally get out of its own way.
State and local governments have latched onto the idea that having their documents hostage to a single vendor, no matter how well-intentioned, might not be such a good idea. Dell recently jumped on the Linux bandwagon and is offering Ubuntu on its PCs. And Microsofts attempt to have its partly-proprietary OOXML (Office Open XML) format rubber-stamped by a friendly standards body hasnt gone as smoothly as expected.
But behind the scenes, things are not quite as rosy. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which lived up to its left-leaning credentials (didnt Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously upbraid open-source proponents for being Communists?) broke important ground by mandating that state agencies switch to open-source platforms. Theres just one problem: They cant seem to manage the transition. Sources close to the situation tell me that former state CIO Peter Quinns resignation happened at least in part because of delaying tactics by vendors who publicly support open source but do their best to scuttle it behind the scenes.
And why should that surprise anyone? A company like IBM has to generate $190 million worth of incremental revenues every year, and royalties are a big part of that number. Royalties like the ones it earns from… you guessed it, Microsoft. Suffice to say that the vendor community will support open source only so long as it doesnt interfere with their revenue models.
Beyond Massachusetts, the open-source bills introduced in Minnesota, Texas and the like are stagnant or dead. One of the hiccups is that open-source software isnt very good at reading documents written using proprietary software. The state of California is currently testing a new plug-in; if that fails to impress, open source may be dead in California, too.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has begun to wrap open-source distributions in its suffocating arms, offering peaceful coexistence in our time—but on its terms and only to selected distros.
And most people now expect Microsoft to get its stamp of approval for OOXML, opening its doors to even the most open-source-friendly states.
The Free Software Foundation and Linux continue to engage in a pissing match over some of the terms of GPLv3, making the open-source community seem, once again, like splinter groups of some radical political organization more interested in winning arcane theological disputes than actually taking power.
Meanwhile, while Dell offers Ubuntu on personal computers, it still refuses to sell pre-installed Linux on PCs for business use.
Does that mean open source is dying? Of course not. But the open-source community needs to get over its overweening sense of superiority and messianic inevitability; the alternative is just good enough that if it doesnt get its act together, open source may find itself the subject of retrospectives like “Remember Unix?”