Has open-source lost its halo?

Observers argue that open source has become a cloak used by IT vendors to disguise ruthless and self-serving behaviour

Aras CEO Peter Schroer admits that the company has taken some heat for continuing to bill itself a "Microsoft enterprise open source software solution provider," though he denies the company is receiving extraordinary financial support from Microsoft.

Schroer says going open-source was simply a smart business decision that will help Aras as it would any other open-source firm: reducing marketing costs and speeding up the sales cycle, allowing the company to focus more on technical development and to better create a community of users sharing tips and code.

Moreover, Schroer rebuffs the notion that embracing open-source entails signing up to be card-carrying member of the overthrow-Windows faction.

"Software doesn't have to run on Linux to be considered open," he said.

Not all companies that suddenly go open-source get criticized. Terracotta, a San Francisco maker of Java clustering software, has gotten nothing but kudos since switching to open-source in December, according to CEO Amit Pandey.

"We are a new company and our product only came out six months before that," he said. "If we'd waited say a year or a year and a half, we'd probably have run into more resistance."

Blurring the boundaries

The sudden drive for ideological purity is partly due to the confusing period in open-source's evolution we seem to be in. The prevailing business model is the almost-oxymoronic 'commercial open-source.' The biggest open-source announcements last year were all by companies traditionally hostile to open-source.

Take Microsoft, which now touts the large percentage of users who run popular open-source applications such as SugarCRM, Jboss and MySQL on top of Windows. The Redmond company also inked that controversial deal with open-source standardbearer Novell.

Or look at Sun, which finally open-sourced Java last year. Or Oracle, which began supporting Red Hat Linux -- though its offer received heavy criticism because, as Haff puts it, "Red Hat is reasonably well-liked, and Oracle's move was so bloody flagrant."

Or take the wave of startups that are adopting open-source business models but shucking the ideological baggage. Like Interface21's Choksi, who cheerfully admits not having "any religious affiliation to open-source. It's just how we went to market from the start."

Redmonk's Governor believes the numbers of such accidental open-sourcers, as opposed to true believers, will continue to increase, because in this age of easily-developed and delivered software, "freemium" business models -- meaning a service with a free entry point and a more expensive premium offering -- simply make the most sense.

"Success in IT is increasingly defined by what vendors or organizations give away, as much as what they charge for," Governor said. "The world is moving on. It's increasingly a commodity business. Brand, packaging in the broad sense, and the service wrapper are what organizations can charge for."

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