At the SIIA Enterprise Software Summit last week, I had the chance to talk with senior executives from both MySQL and Red Hat Inc. This was fun, as neither company had been close to my hit parade in years past. What I learned from my conversations with them was the importance of separating the religion of open source from the business.
I dont think that Im alone in being so turned off by the political aspects of the open-source community that Ive never really considered the business side of the equation.
Actually, I did consider it briefly. I decided, “Free software will never work,” and ignored the rest.
It is easy to think of open source simply as a dopey social movement akin to communism—and with about as much hope of ultimate success. No matter what anybody tells you, software isnt free and isnt supposed to be. Writing software is work, and people deserve to be rewarded for that.
If people want to give away their work, thats fine, but you cant organize a society around the notion of people doing their best work merely to help out their fellows with no reward in return.
If you dont believe me, ask the Russians, the Chinese—or try to visit the North Koreans and see how well that experiment has worked out.
What I didnt see, at least until last week, was how open source can provide a market opportunity for a company that otherwise wouldnt have had a chance.
Making software available for free, along with the source code, can open the door to enterprise computing customers for vendors who otherwise never would have stood a chance.
Take MySQL AB, a Swedish company thats one of the darlings of open source. According to Zack Urlocker, marketing vice president at the companys U.S. office, users have downloaded about 5 million copies of the companys namesake database. Anybody who wants to can have the source code for MySQL under a public licensing scheme.
What pays MySQLs bills is revenue from 5,000 paying customers—some them large companies—who want both the database and the support necessary to use it in enterprise applications.
In the simplest terms, MySQL gives away its database to seed the market. Commercial users then pay. And source code is available both so people can add functionality to the core product and so paying customers dont worry that the small company will roll over and die, leaving them in the lurch.
To me, thats not religion, thats not communism, thats not even the Swedish welfare state. Its just a very smart way to start a small company in a big marketplace. Is it open source? Sure it is. But its open source for a business reason, not to make a social statement.
MySQL is, to me, just another software company with a marketing gimmick that happens to be “open source.” That I can get into. And being able to separate the politics of open source from the business reality makes it easy to hate one aspect while appreciating the real value open source can provide.
On the other hand, I still think Linux is mostly about commodity computing at popular prices and that it will eventually become as fragmented as Unix. But thats another column.