The Fight for Open Source

7 October, 2006

Open Source vs. Private Development

By: Ron Teitelbaum *

It’s an important question: Where does the advantage lie? When private development funds projects, full time and very talented people can be attracted by money and the potential financial rewards that come from private ownership. Open source development has the advantage of larger numbers of part time development resources.

This article focuses on the benefits of open source vs. private development, what the limitations are, real or imagined, and where is this all leading.

Large groups of people tend to get things right. From the stock market to horse racing (as if they were not both gambling) to ratings on the internet, when many people contribute the group as a whole is extremely accurate. This group development philosophy within open source should not be underestimated. The altruistic nature of contributing to the greater good, the benefits (financial or otherwise) of being recognized by your peers, or being respected by the business community that your regular job targets all help to drive open source development.

Money is a great motivator. The potential to earn tremendous profits by risking capital on initial development drives private enterprise. The initial capital also allows for greater focus and concentrated effort to obtaining that financial reward. The need for funding and profit also severely limits the number of resources available to private companies.

Now here is the catch. Everything that an open source company contributes to the general software community is available to the private companies of the world. This significantly changes the fairness of the competition. Now all a private company needs to do is to wait for open source communities to do something brilliant, then improve on it or deploy it better then anyone else and they win.

This competition between open source and private development can take on strange forms. Some private firms spend a lot of time fighting against open source. When private companies start denigrating the value, or quality of open source projects they can have a significant impact on the value of the project.

They do this to the benefit of their own development but at the risk of losing real technological advancement in their industry. We have seen generally superior software or advanced software functionality rejected for software backed by MegaSupersizedCorporations. There appears to be some shift in this competition as end users begin supporting or insisting on open source software. We have even seen governments move the front and insist on FREE software.

Other companies do just the opposite. They laud the efforts of the open source community. They support their efforts financially, help to run projects, and encourage new developments. In this way they allow for advancement in their own fields, but they still provide improvements and better support to ultimately win the game.

Can open source ever win? Does it matter? Where does the advantage lie? The answer is simple but the path is complicated. To answer the question we need to follow the money. Imagine all the people living life in peace. Ok well at least imagine what the world would be like if open source won the battle. Would that eliminate the amount of money that end users spend on software? The answer is no. The world will still need people to implement the software so that end users can benefit. Will it eliminate the money that goes to private companies? Again the answer is no, since providing support, implementation and training is what private companies do best, and what open source projects do worst.

Could open source projects become private businesses, offering these services for a price and then using these profits to fund more professional development which is contributed back to the open source community? The answer is yes, but this is undistinguishable from private development winning.

The answer is that open source will win the innovation war, but business will win the financial war. We are not fighting the same battle. There is no way to stop the open source communities. Companies may fight the battle, some may win, but the numbers are too great. Innovation will still come from the larger communities. Businesses may insist on proprietary implementations but risk losing out on significant developments in their industry that could leave them behind and allow their competition to flourish. Companies that embrace open source will have the definite advantage financially.

Is that the whole story? No. There is more. The battle is not over, because open source is still toddling and learning to walk. There is still competition between the two sides and each side believes it is fighting the same battle. This competition is good since the race to be the innovative winner drives technology forward. Open source projects strive to be that innovator, and they will eventually win, but for now having that competition with private business helps to motivate the open source community in ways that will end when this battle is over.

3 Responses to “The Fight for Open Source”

  1. Josh Berkus Says:


    There’s an easy way to find out who will “win”. Just wait 15 years.

    Overall, though, I think that “winning” is pretty irrelevant to the discussion. It’s like discussing will Linux “defeat” Microsoft? No, it won’t. If Linux becomes more pervasive or profitable than Windows, you’ll see a Microsoft Linux hit the market.

    The question is, will open source development replace traditional models, co-exist with them, or peak and fade away like communism? I have what I believe, but the only way to know is to wait and see.

  2. Hmm. I’m not sure there really is a battle to be fought. The market will actually determine whether there are incentives for a project to be open source or proprietary, as there are benefits to both, as there are to incorporating or running a sole proprietorship. It really comes down to your objectives and why you’re creating what you’re creating.

    Furthermore, open source, IMHO, has consistently failed to innovate in key areas that might make such projects more attractive to conventional audiences who are not into software development.

    For example, show me a high quality, innovation computer game that’s open source; show me a browser that’s really pushing the envelope of what’s possible for end users (extensions don’t count).

    Open source communities, to date, have not been good at innovating products for regular humans. They’re able to build things that are interesting and useful to them, but rarely put out tools that appeal to wider audiences. They are also good at fixing bugs that deviate from an existing model or paradigm. What is Firefox but a paired down copy of Internet Explorer with tabs (which Netscape 6 had first) and a popup blocker?

    While I’m harsh on open source, it’s also because I’m very aware and very sensitive to the struggles it will face to legitimize itself beyond the typical geek/open source communities. For that, we must become more diverse, more inclusive, more tolerant and more understanding of audiences unlike ourselves.

    If there is a “battle” at all, then it must be on those fronts that we advance further and faster than the proprietary world. Or else the battles that you’re talking about won’t actually matter at all, as no one will care whether something’s open source or not so long as it helps them kick ass or does what they expect.

  3. It’s funny that Josh mentions Microsoft’s support for Linux.

    Microsoft, Novell entering into partnership over Linux: WSJ

    By Gabriel Madway
    Last Update: 2:18 PM ET Nov 2, 2006

    SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Novell Inc. (NOVL) are entering into a partnership that could help Novell’s Linux operating system, according to a media report Thursday. Under the agreement, which isn’t final, Microsoft will offer sales support to Novell’s Suse Linux, the Wall Street Journal reported on its Web site, citing people familiar with the companies. The two companies have also agreed to develop technologies to make it easier for computer users to run both Suse Linux and Microsoft’s Windows operating system, the report said. The companies are expected to announce details of their plan later today at a press conference in San Francisco.

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