Golden's Rules: Will proprietary vendors' open source deals help IT shops, OS movement?

It seems like a week can't go by without announcements of open source companies cozying up to proprietary vendors, or vice versa. Does this sound a death knell for the independent open source movement? Does it mean that proprietary vendors are using open source products as weapons against competitors? More importantly, can these deals give IT organizations the both of best worlds?

Let's explore those themes in light of recent developments. Just in the last few months, we've seen:

  • IBM purchase Gluecode Software, bringing support for the open source Geronimo app server in-house where it seems to represent a competitive offering to the existing proprietary WebSphere product
  • Oracle Corp. purchase InnoDB, provider of an open source database transaction product that integrates with MySQL, a leading open source database provider
  • SCO and MySQL announce a partnership to integrate MySQL and SCO's OpenServer
  • Microsoft announce a strategic relationship with JBoss Inc. in which the two companies will work together to better integrate their products, including gaining JBoss support for Active Directory and improved integration into SQL Server and supporting JBoss under the Microsoft Operations Manager.
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Only one of the proprietary companies listed above is an open source enthusiast, and the CEO of one described open source as a "cancer." So why have they gone out of their way to make nice with open source companies?

It can be summed up in a single phrase: market share.

Each of these companies looked at its core offerings and noted that open source products are being used by a significant (and undoubtedly growing) percentage of its customers, and the customers are clamoring for better integration of the two products. So, even without any enthusiasm for open source, each of the vendors concluded that, to better serve its own customer base, it needed to work better with certain open source products -- notwithstanding, the fact that it might have its own product offering similar to the open source product.

These actions reflect a truism of business: To keep a customer happy, you'll do things in his interest, even if those things aren't necessarily in your interest.

These actions also disprove a common myth that nobody is really using open source. You often hear this claim stated as, "Sure, open source has a place in universities [or government or small business], but no enterprises are really using it." The implication is that only poor organizations or ones filled with time-insensitive employees are truly using open source; the wealthy, real-life organizations that run a tight ship will never turn away from commercial, proprietary software offerings.

Think again. No major vendor enters those kinds of relationships without hard evidence that important customers are demanding better integration.

However, don't imagine that these initiatives reflect a general enthusiasm for open source. In fact, they can best be understood as a specific company's response to its specific customer base. In that light, we can examine each of the initiatives for what it implies for open source:

  • IBM's purchase of Gluecode is clearly a response to the growing popularity of the open source app server from JBoss.

    IBM's own proprietary product, WebSphere, was suffering from the incursion of JBoss into the J2EE market. To IBM's credit, rather than dismiss JBoss as unimportant, it decided it needed to fight fire with fire. Thus, it purchased Gluecode.

    I think that IBM may suffer its own related problems in the future. At the time of the purchase, Big Blue characterized Gluecode as the perfect choice for small businesses and pilot installations; and WebSphere is the obvious choice when a project goes into production. IBM may find plenty of customers failing to upgrade to WebSphere, but as long as they stay with IBM and Gluecode, that won't be a total loss.

  • Oracle's purchase of InnoDB cannot be seen as anything other than a direct attack on MySQL.

    Oracle proclaimed its purchase as part of its overall commitment to open source software, but very few people were naÏve enough to accept that justification. InnoDB is a key technology for MySQL's push into transactional systems, and Oracle will definitely use its ownership of this technology to stymie MySQL's prospects. MySQL now faces the challenge of developing an alternative to InnoDB.

  • SCO's partnership with MySQL is clearly motivated by a desire to enable its customers to use a very popular, low-cost database.

    SCO's customer base has traditionally been cost-sensitive organizations and this partnership allows SCO to better serve them. There has been a lot of angst about this partnership in certain segments of the open source community. They seem to regard MySQL's action as supping with the devil and MySQL itself as a heretic. Frankly, this is petulance. There is no doubt that SCO has exhibited terrible (and self-destructive) behavior toward Linux, and that it is in a terminal decline. However, to expect MySQL to turn its back on customers who want to use its products is foolish. In fact, were MySQL to refuse to work with SCO, it would demonstrate exactly the kind of adolescent behavior too many people associate with open source.

    Microsoft's motivation for its partnership with JBoss is very similar to the SCO situation outlined above.

    Microsoft has customers, who want to run an open source J2EE app server, and the company wants to keep those customers happy -- even though it would prefer that they run .NET. JBoss sees this partnership as a way to increase its customer base. If you are one of the many open source advocates who dislike Microsoft, you might even see this as a net positive, given that it offers the opportunity for more people to begin using an open source alternative to .NET.

Golden's Rule

We will see many more of these situations in the future. It's obvious that proprietary vendors now recognize the need to incorporate open source into their strategic plans and respond to customer needs and demands.

Open source, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows. Overall, these types of initiatives are a net positive. They reflect the growing acceptance of open source software within mainstream IT organizations, and they will give IT organizations more choices, more alternatives to the standard proprietary fare.

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