Will open source ever destroy its proprietary prey? Ask Apache

It’s not a good idea to make predictions about death, other than the fact that it will happen to all of us eventually. That’s why you don’t often see “The death of” headlines much on ITBusiness.ca, even when the future of thin-client PCs, DOS and other technologies looks far from promising. Just as video failed to completely kill off the radio star, I think it’s probably premature to finger open source as the murderer of commercial software.

Apache Foundation chairman Greg Stein, on the other hand, had no problem giving a five- to 10-year timeline for packaged applications at EclipseCon in March. He said the level of coding talent in the open source community means that eventually the products that come out of it are bound to be better than what vendors produce behind closed doors. The real money, Stein argued, will be in support and maintenance. Everything else will eventually be free.

Even some people in the open source community have a hard time swallowing that one. If Stein’s right, it will definitely take longer than five to 10 years. Word processing and spreadsheets are one thing, but enterprise-class business intelligence applications, advanced networking software and security tools are far from becoming commodities. Simple lethargy and resistance to change are enough to keep commercial software firms for at least a few more decades.

The question is not really whether Stein is right or wrong, but how right or wrong he is. It’s not like he came up with the idea out of thin air. A lot of things we once paid dearly for are probably not worth the money today, given the available open source alternatives. Lowering costs has, in fact, been a key element in Linux’s momentum (though many of the distribution firms like to shy away from this now). Many firms, including some of the industry’s largest and best-known vendors, make a substantial part of their revenue off maintenance and support, rather than new product sales.

Having just come home from Novell’s BrainShare event, I can’t help but think of its SUSE Linux desktop, which takes open source to the core of every PC. Particularly in light of the recent announcement about the delay in Windows Vista’s consumer edition, why wouldn’t more users think about SUSE when they buy their next machine? Novell, I’m sure, has a toll-free number where employees would like nothing better than to answer troubleshooting questions. That’s still a long way away from Stein’s vision, but it’s getting closer.

Proprietary applications may be as difficult to kill off as open source software, though market forces may shift the balance of power and influence that exists in data centres today. The best we can hope for is that the threat open source creates will spur commercial firms to fight back with better software. This industry will become even more interesting as the predator becomes the prey.

Shane Schick is the editor of ITBusiness.ca

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