Open source software merits debated

Open source proponents and a Microsoft official had varying perspectives on the value of the open source model during separate discussions at the 2004 SIIA Enterprise Software Summit in San Francisco on Wednesday.

Representatives from MySQL, Novell, Collabnet, and IBM offered positive slants on open source during a panel session. In a discussion later, Microsoft's Charles Fitzgerald, general manager of the company's Platform Strategy and Partner Group, was more skeptical of the development model. Red Hat's Mike Evans, vice president of partner development, also discussed open source at the conference.

While acknowledging that open source has a place, Fitzgerald cautioned developers about the practice of offering software for free. "If you're interested in making a business out of software, that may not be the most compelling model," Fitzgerald said.

Despite concerns that open source users may be those who simply do not want to pay for software, advocates of the paradigm stressed that money is being made on open source.

"The veneer is off and in fact, people do pay money," said Matt Asay, director of the Linux Business Office at Novell.

"The perception has changed. People no longer feel like they're going to get something for nothing," he said.

Open source is subject to the misconceptions that it is not being used in business and that it's generated by developers who are not getting paid, Evans said. He added, however, that he does not predict "an entire open source world."

In Novell's case, the company complements Linux with other products such as a collaboration suite, Asay said. Open source will win out in lower end installations, Asay said. In such instances, a large commercial vendor such as Oracle will have trouble competing for Java application server business or database business against JBoss or MySQL, he said.

"You're going to lose, period," Asay said.

"You'll see the Oracles and BEAs continue to develop these fantastically featured products" for higher end customers, he said.

At MySQL, the company's dual licensing model allows for users to get the database free if they are not deploying it in a commercial application, noted Zack Urlocker, vice president of marketing at MySQL. Customers who will be using the database in a commercial environment and do not want to publish any additions they make to the source code to pay for a license, he said.

"We actually make our money very [similarly] to a traditional company," with 65 percent of revenues coming from license fees, Urlocker said. Customers pay for licenses and support like a traditional software model, he said.

"We're not a religion, we're not a cult, we're not a charity. We're a business," Urlocker said. MySQL experiences 35,000 downloads of its software daily, but only has 5,000 paying customers, according to Urlocker.

Urlocker stressed that the software market has in fact changed. "The old model, which many of us lived through in the enterprise software industry, is high prices for software that doesn't really work and that's really not acceptable anymore," said Urlocker.

Microsoft's Fitzgerald said users will no longer accept the high failure rates that have historically predominated software projects. "That model is never, never coming back," he said.

Panelists noted concerns enterprises have about platform switches. The proliferation of standards reduces the switching costs, however, according to the panel. Users will tend to migrate to open source when re-architecting their environment, rather than migrating current applications, said Urlocker.

Users now expect compatibility in software, stressed Brian Behlendorf, CTO and Founder of CollabNet.

"People see incompatibility as a bug to be fixed rather than as a proprietary advantage to be driven," Behlendorf said.

A decision by the City of Munich to opt for Linux over Microsoft's platform was hailed during the panel discussion. But Fitzgerald rebutted, "That project is not the slam-dunk that it's portrayed to be."

"You want to be careful about trumpeting your wins before you actually deliver on them," Fitzgerald said.

He added, "The customer demand still seems to be pretty overwhelming for Windows."

IBM, for its part, will participate in open source in some areas but not in others, said Steve Gerdt, program manager for Open Source Strategy at IBM. "The line will probably change over time," he said.

Open source and commercial software will continue to exist, Gerdt said. "There will always be a place for commercial software," he said.

Fitzgerald during his discussion also said not everyone will move to a software-as-a-service model. Some customers want to retain control of their software, he said.

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