Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board




Open Source is the new Microsoft?

I was reading through one of the never-ending "open source will starve us all" threads here, and it finally dawned on me...

Open Source is the new Microsoft.  Not in a wealth sense, but in a competition sense.  Take a look at these points:

1. Microsoft has lots of developers, and can throw lots of them at any problem that has profit potential or strategic importance.  OSS has lots of developers, and can throw lots of them at any problem that the developers (or their employers) find worthwhile.

2. Microsoft is a strong competitor who can drive all other competitors out of almost every market they choose, using superior marketing, price pressure, and strategic lock-in.  OSS is also a strong competitor, similarly capable of sucking all the air out of a market via price pressure and strategic benefits.  (Note that in many markets, the ability to modify the source and distribute it royalty-free, is an overwhelming strategic benefit.  Also, in GPL situations, as each competitor "defects" to using and modifying the code, a network effect ensues, similar to MS-style lock-in tactics.)

3. Developers are happy when MS makes tools for them, and stays out of the markets they work in, because the impact of MS moving into their market can be devastating to their livelihood.  The same is true for open source.

4. Microsoft isn't going away.  They have plenty of money to supply their needs for a long time.  OSS isn't going away either: no one individual or company has a lot of money to support it, but it's averaged over a huge talent pool with people continually coming and going...  not unlike MS employees.

Funny to think about, eh?  But it's easy to see why MS isn't happy with their "evil twin", at least not now that he's entered some of their markets.  MS' tactics are basically to either buy a competitor or destroy them, but neither is possible with OSS in-the-large, even though some smaller companies with control of OSS projects are buyable.  MS may eventually be forced to "make nice" with its twin in some areas, as it has already been forced to begin making pricing and other concessions to win deals.

Anyway...  if you view the OSS movement as a bunch of random people coding for free, you're missing the forest for the trees.  The forest is a *movement*, a global virtual enterprise that "employs" more people than Microsoft does.  So I guess, if you'd fear MS entering your market, then it's certainly reasonable to fear OSS entering it.

If MS entered your market today, what would you do?

Phillip J. Eby
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

+++I was reading through one of the never-ending "open source will starve us all" threads here, and it finally dawned on me...+++

Are you talking to me?

rick chapman
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

You're so vain, you probably think this thread is about you...  but I doubt it.

Actually, a rather interesting analysis.  I hope that those who think open source is a threat to their vocational capacity take notice.  You've been living with the same thing for 15+ years now.

I'd rather hitch my wagon to the engine of transparency.

nat ersoz
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

"engine of transparency"

That is a lovely expression! I aim to use it in conversation tomorrow.

Do you mean integration middleware glue? Or am I looking for a metaphor too hard?

Dr Sneeky Peek
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

To be quite honest, if Microsoft moved into my market, I would sell out. If I didn't have a Seattle-area office, I would get one, and I would change all of my marketing to have a very Microsoft-y view of the world. I would make all sorts of claims about how our product was done/ready-to-go/able to take on competitors on other platforms immediately. I would do everything I could to get Microsoft to buy the rights to my product and make me a millionaire.

Note: this doesn't work as well for companies with a "technology" rather than an "application". If you have a technology, Microsoft will probably just steal it, but in the past they have just spent the money to takeover complete applications.

Don't resist - getting bought out by Microsoft is the American software company's dream. So put away your vision statement, there's money to be had.

sell out
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

"You've been living with the same thing for 15+ years now."

In all fairness, this isn't 100% true.  MS doesn't go after vertical markets directly, and aren't likely to in the future, preferring to have their "Solution Partners" deal in such things.  Although MS could get their "fair share" (i.e., 100%) of many of those markets, the markets themselves are not large enough to be of interest to MS.

But, I remember it being rather scary when my company thought MS was looking into doing real estate software.  It was in the big eighties real estate boom, when there were upward of 1.2 million licensed real estate agents in the U.S.  They ended up listing software in a "solutions guide" or something like that, but for a while there we weren't sure what we'd do, except maybe try to groom ourselves as a buy-out target.

And maybe that's why people don't worry *too* terribly about MS; they can always try to believe that they have the best product and they'll continue to work on it... at Microsoft.

OSS, OTOH, doesn't buy anybody out, and has the potential to reach *all* markets, eventually, since projects that get adequate developer attention will rarely die.  However, developer attention is key, which means that OSS is likely to be rarer in vertical markets because the developer pool with market knowledge is smaller, and there is a lot more incentive to keep such specialized applications in closed-source form.

Phillip J. Eby
Tuesday, September 23, 2003


"I would do everything I could to get Microsoft to buy the rights to my product and make me a millionaire."

Does this remind anyone else of the Simpsons episode where Bill Gates shows up with some tough guys, breaks Homer's pencils and asks: "You don't think I got to be the richest man in the world by writing a bunch of cheques, do you?"

Craig
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

I'm convinced that the OSS guys are coding themselves into a corner. In the mature-OSS world I envision there will be two jobs:

Job 1: Write code. For free.
Job 2: Work tech support for a codebase you understand. Please. Kill. Me. Now.

Have fun, boys. Last one out, don't forget to turn out the lights.

Slashdot refugee
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

> Job 1: Write code. For free.

Doesn't that assume that there will be a competent programmer for every job out there?

Seriously, assuming mature OSS, what percent of all software problems will be solved? 15%? 25%? 50%?

There are so many vertical problems that OSS will never solve that I can't see free coding becoming a reality.

Think of it this way: even if your grocery store started giving out the ingredients for meals for free, restaurants would still survive.

jason

JasonB
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

You only have to look at the huge following open source has among people who don't know the first thing about software to see that the concept has problems.

Also, if open source is so terrific, how come people still pay for professionally developed software?

I think open source is best viewed as amateur software, the same way there is amateur theatre, amateur music and amateur writing.

JM
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

What makes you think the mature OSS world will be any different than the mature CSS world?  Software exists yet newer, more complex software is still being written.

DOS was good enough for everyone to get their job done back-in-the-day, but Windows NT still got written.  There is no forseable limit to which software can be improved.  We will continue to evolve more abstract ways to make more complex and featureful software possible.  This hasn't changed since the beginning of the industry.  I don't know why people think the sky is somehow falling now because of free software.

Invent, innovate, produce, and ship.  If you can't do that, then be satisfied with the meager sustenance that mediocrity has given since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Richard Ponton
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

The cynic in me thinks big corporations will use the law like a hammer on small developers.

I was floored to find out MRTG has recently closed it's doors:
http://people.ee.ethz.ch/~oetiker/webtools/mrtg/

I wonder if this will be a trend.. I know I'd fold like a cheap suit if MS ever comes after my shoddily written Perl scripts.

Lee
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

"NOTE: MRTG itself is presently not bein threatened specifically, but it could be. This is why I join this protest. "Software-patents" are such a silly thing that it hurts may brain to even imagine somebody talking about them with a straight face."

http://people.ee.ethz.ch/~oetiker/webtools/mrtg/index-2.html

Patrik
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Sorry.. I didn't mean to imply that MRTG was being sued, merely that they feel the threat is strong enough to close their doors.

Lee
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

I see a stark difference between the ways how product management is conducted at Microsoft vs. the Open Source Community. At Microsoft you have a bunch of stakeholders and established processes to assess projects and future directions. Yes, Microsoft did errors in the past ("No one will ever need more than 640KB memory", "The browser is a trivial piece of software"), but was able to recognize and correct those errors quickly. Whereas in the OSS community a large scale of all projects are led by only a few people. Why? Lack of commitment, time, expertise.

So I tend to believe the real enemy of the OSS comunity is the community itself (cf. Shirky's "A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy"). Don't get me wrong: the code quality of most OSS projects is excellent. But the way the product itself is managed often shows not only a lack of common sense, but sometimes effort is wasted on futile directions.

The bottom line is: Even the brightest individuals make errors. What matters is whether you are able to learn fast enough and whether you have an organizational structure to quickly recover from past errors.

Johnny Bravo
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

There might be a decreasing willingness for people to pay for software, in an opensource world.

But this may be inevitable, since people (even programmers) often perceive that anything with zero marginal cost of production/distribution should be free.  So it's isn't necessarily opensource driving down prices, but opensource being driven by it.

BTW, notice that Stallman has often made clear that it's important to find ways to profit from free software.  He did it himself by charging a good price for emacs tapes, even though others could undercut him.

I think a bigger problem is there's too many programmers in the world.

Tayssir John Gabbour
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Phillip wrote:
"OSS is .... capable of sucking all the air out of a market via price pressure and strategic benefits.  "


Anyone with *any* marketing experience will tell you that this is by no means certain.

Marketing provides several benefits:
1.  Informs your customer about your product.
2.  Informs them HOW your product can solve thier problem.

Just making your product inexpensive doesn't remove the need for the above.

If your customer doesn't KNOW about your product, it doesn't matter how cheap it is.

Put another way: your argument assumes something called "demand -price elasticity", which is by no means guaranteed.

Go run a successful *product* business and come back and see if you think marketing is unimportant.

Entrepreneur
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

BTW, Open Office is one example of how lowering the price doesn't remove the need for marketing.

In fact, Sun had to RAISE the price to get corporations to use it.

the reasoning was that customers didn't want to use it unless they knew it would be supported and maintained.

A low price didn't HELP marketing in this case. It actually HURT it.

Entrepreneur
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

"Job 1: Write code. For free.
Job 2: Work tech support for a codebase you understand. Please. Kill. Me. Now."

I think the open sourcers will revolt long before they reach this point because they will be sick to death of Redhat and IBM making money of what they did for free.

In general open source will solve a few problems well, a lot of problems some, and some problems not at all.  Servers ad infra structure will be done well.  Desktops or any application requiring a decent UI or decent documentation will be lacking.  For a lot of things Linux is a do it your self software kit.  Not everyone wants to do it themselves.  Some will hire it done.  Those that don't want to do it themselves and hire it done could give a rats ass whether or not they ever see the source as the source gives them no perceivable power.

"I was floored to find out MRTG has recently closed it's doors:
http://people.ee.ethz.ch/~oetiker/webtools/mrtg/"

They didn't.  It is currently in vogue if you are an OSS zealot to put this up on your website for awhile and not let anyone download your stuff.  Knoppix and others did or have done it.  Kind of like a peace march or some such.  "Well, I f'ing hate Illinois nazi's"

If Microsoft can't overcome OSS, then they're just not as evil as they are portrayed by OSS.

Mike
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

The standard "we will starve because of open source" myth is false. I summarized the reasons why it is here:

http://fc-solve.berlios.de/oss-fs/docbook/oss-fs/x173.html

The main reason is that the majority of software out there has no sale value, and that's where the majority of programmers are employed.

That put aside, I think the analogy between Microsoft and the Open Source world as a whole is in its place. However, I do believe that OSS is a better Microsoft: less abusive to the customers, costs less, less money-oriented, makes better use of users and co-developers, enjoys the bazaar-model etc.

Shlomi Fish
Wednesday, September 24, 2003

When this OSS debate began months ago, I was very intrigued, and then felt threatened.  Heck I even argued with some of my peers about it.  But now you got me thinking that it truly is its own worst enemy.

And as a tiny ISV still wet behind the ears, I'm quickly learning that there is alot of perceived 'value' with the shrinkwrapped model of software that goes beyond its price point.  Most importantly of these is the SUPPORT criteria.

A commercial company has *invested* into a product, and the customer buying it also makes that investment; with clearly defined licenses and most definately a support option.  Without it, customers feel lost and on their own.  They *need* some hand holding (yes, even the super-duper professionals). And especially when its an enterprise.

OSS is more volatile and risky to invest into because you just don't know what you're going to get.  And you really don't have that many people to turn to.  (not every OSS guy can fix just any OSS code). 

And big company's love CYA.  When shit hits the fan, and money is lost, they want liability!  And who are they going to yell at?  Some OSS guy within underground Russia or Japan!?  That manager is going to get his ass canned!

And the point about OSS guys getting fed up with company's like IBM making money of their code is priceless.  Altruism isn't an efficient way to make a living.

So I predict that the OSS frat house will eventually have to grow up and get organized if it is to be taken seriously.  And that means it needs money (to make it, and spend it).  Which means commercialization.  Otherwise, they'll never cross that "chasm".  And the moment that happens, it will demystify the OSS movement and the people with in it will finally be paid for their work, or they'll give up and stick to their day jobs that feed and clothe them.


I wonder if anyone in Hollywood is trying to make a movie about the OSS world?    ;)

sedwo
Wednesday, September 24, 2003

"So I predict that the OSS frat house will eventually have to grow up and get organized if it is to be taken seriously.  And that means it needs money (to make it, and spend it).  Which means commercialization. "

I think it is pretty grown up, there are many companies that make their money out of giving away OSsoftware and then selling support (Redhat etc do this), sure you can get Linux for free and get free support from newsgroups and underground Russian hackers if you want, but you can buy proffessional support contracts for your Linux OS, hire companies to configure your apache web servers, and out source your web design and building to a third company (or even better get one company to do all three but you get the idea). There are also OS companys that make money out of software development, mainly by selling bespoke customisations or consulting ("we wrote the package, so why trust your company to someone who can only know less about it").

Open Source isn't going to destroy commercial software companies, nor is commercialisation going to destroy OSS the two can live quite happily together. And there will always be room for the makers of high quality bespoke applications of a kind that will never gain the number of volunteers that OSS needs to really work well.

bil
Wednesday, September 24, 2003

"""A commercial company has *invested* into a product,"""

Most of the really successful OSS projects involve one or more commercial sponsors, anyway.  Who do you think the Apache developers are?  They're people who benefit commercially from serving web pages: employees of ISP's that use Apache!  Linux development is funded by companies that benefit from Linux.  JBoss has its JBoss Group. MySQL and PostrgeSQL are backed by companies.  Even Mozilla had Netscape, AOL, and now the Mozilla Foundation as commercial backing.  Companies that need the Mozilla browser as a component of their products or services fund development, too.

And, there are dozens of other companies that produce an open source "loss leader" to get openings for their services.  (One example, ReportLab, who have an open-source PDF generation library for Python, that they use to promote their closed source enterprise reporting and document solutions, and consulting services.)

The big difference is that companies with OSS strategies can often pool their investments, creating an informal trade association of sorts.  One marketing point that such pooling companies get from this, is being able to say to a customer, "look, we use an industry standard tool; there are half a dozen other companies supporting this and if one of us goes out of business you're not going to be stuck holding the bag."

Anyway, I just wanted to bring this up because OSS still has this whole "hobbyist" image that has so little to do with how successful OSS projects live and grow.  Yes, a lot of projects *start* as somebody's hobby (e.g. the Linux kernel), but they don't take off while they're in that stage.

Second, successful OSS projects are run by experienced developers with practices that score pretty decently on the process aspects of the Joel test.  Even: "do interviewees write code during the interview".  Absolutely.  People don't get to be developers on a project like Zope or Python (both commercially backed, btw) without having submitted lots of patches for peer review, proving that they can work with the project's policies and coding style.  Many such projects have better-documented and more-effective process and coding standards than any shop that's not programmer-run.

So terms like "frat house" and "hobby" seem weird to me, because they have absolutely nothing to do with the comercially-backed, professionally-run projects that I use every day in my work or have had the honor of participating in.  I'm sure that lots of "hobby" projects and  "frat house" programmers exist, but those aren't anything that you need to worry about.  Open source isn't a philosophical movement, it's a commercial one.  Free Software is the philosophical movement, driven by ideals.

The difference between the two isn't the GPL, though.  Plenty of companies with open-source (commercial) motives use the GPL, because it prevents hoarding.  That is, HP and IBM don't have to worry about the other one adding proprietary features to a GPL product.  That makes it safe for both of them to include that product in their offerings, and to share in any tactical enhancements they make to the product.

The difference between Free and Open Source is more in the why you do it, than what you do.  In my view, an "open source" developer is community-minded because it makes good software and business sense.  A "free software" developer makes software (and maybe even does business) because they are community-minded.  This leads to lots of "peanut butter in my chocolate"/"chocolate in my peanut butter" arguments, of course.  :)

Phillip J. Eby
Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Philip, I don't know whether you're aware of the discordancy in your arguments that oss is actually commercial and thus benefits programmers.

That argument generally comes from the vast range of other groups that benefit from open source at the expense of developers. Lawyers, IT managers, sys admins, and the rest.

It's fine for them to produce those arguments. But it looks a bit silly for a programmer to push them as well.


Wednesday, September 24, 2003

> That argument generally comes from the vast range of other groups that benefit from open source at the expense of developers. Lawyers, IT managers, sys admins, and the rest.

Not sure what kind of crack you're smoking here.

Plenty of programmers *do* benefit from Open Source: those who use it to deliver vertical solutions based on Open Source to customers: and there's plenty of us out there!

I agree that it *does* hurt the programmers who are trying to develop for-profit infrastructures that duplicate the Open Source ones, but IMO this is the market at work. Sorry folks, but you gotta find another ecological niche to occupy.

As Philip says, an important part of strategizing a software product now is asking whether you'll face competition from Open Source products.

Portabella
Thursday, September 25, 2003

"""oss is actually commercial and thus benefits programmers"""

Please don't put words in my mouth.  I was responding to nonsense about OSS being hobbyist-driven.  I didn't make a claim about benefitting programmers, or that there was a connection between the two.

As for the rest of your post, I should note that I am a businessperson who is also a software developer.  So I don't see a conflict in any case.  You'll notice that Joel -- also a businessperson/developer -- feels free to use open source tools when it benefits him, and leave them aside when he doesn't.  I would also guess that if he saw a way that releasing some code would make him more profitable, he'd do it, with nary a moment's hesitation as to whether it would make anybody else lose money.  (Unless they were customers or valued partners.)

Now, if you simply multiply that out, you'll see where a good bit of the OSS movement comes from: dozens or hundreds of companies of various sizes, making tactical or strategic business decisions to share code, or reuse shared code, for their own selfish reasons.

It seems to me that most of the people that gripe about OSS are under the bizarre impression that OSS = a bunch of programmers working for free.  Please.  Show me a successful OSS project of any complexity that doesn't have commercial backing.

Note that in its most trivial sense, you could say hosting your project on SourceForge means you're getting commercial backing from VA Linux, but that's stretching a bit.  More common is that the developers are paid by their employers to do the work, in support of the employer's goals.  Example: consulting shop contributes an enhancement to OFBiz, because they need it for a client project and don't want to maintain a seperate branch of development for that client.

Phillip J. Eby
Thursday, September 25, 2003

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home