FOSS: War is over (if you want it)

At the Open World Forum event in Paris this morning I presented a quick overview of the state of free and open source software in 2009 and a look at the trends shaping FOSS into the next decade. The presentation was just 10 minutes rather than the 20 I had originally understood it to be, so I wanted to use the blog to expand a little on the discussion and my thinking.

War is over (if you want it)

Aside from the ongoing adoption of open source, one of the trends that has defined FOSS in 2009 has been the numerous declarations that the war between open source and proprietary software is over – and moreover that open source has won.

Perhaps the highest profile of these came from The Economist’s article published in May which stated:

“The argument has been won. It is now generally accepted that the future will involve a blend of both proprietary and open-source software.”

This was a clear indication that the acceptance of free and open source licensing had reached the mainstream, but if open source has “won”, how has victory been achieved?

  • Open source software is ubiquitous

Gartner’s assessment that by 2012, 90% of enterprises will use open source has now almost become a mantra among FOSS advocates. If anything we at The 451 Group would see that figure as a conservative estimate, but whether the figure is 90% or 92% or 95% is really picking hairs – it is clear that the overwhelming majority of enterprises and government agencies are now using FOSS somewhere within their infrastructure.

  • End user adoption is increasing

The recent decision by IDC to increase its prediction of the size of the open source software market in 2013 to $8.1bn from $5.8bn similarly gained a lot of attention among FOSS enthusiasts. While we would not dispute the figures, we would point out how that compares to the size of the overall software market. An educated guess suggests that it could be in the region of 2%, maybe 3% or 4%.

Again though we are picking at hairs and the key message is that while FOSS has gained a tremendous reach, it has a long way to go in terms of penetration – although the silver lining in that is that there is a huge opportunity for growth.

  • Open source software is pervasive

One area that FOSS has seen much more penetration is amongst proprietary software and hardware vendors. The likes of IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, SAP and Adobe are all now using and contributing to open source software, indeed you would be hard pushed to find a technology vendor that isn’t making use of open source software development and licensing strategies, or building on open source code.

Each of these vendors is using FOSS to its advantage and on its own terms, and we have seen “mixed models” that combine FOSS and proprietary software come to dominate.

  • Mixed models

At the 451 Group we’ve done a lot of research into how vendors make money from FOSS and one of the key findings is that the line between FOSS and proprietary software has blurred as FOSS has been embedded in proprietary products and vendors following the Open-Core model have added proprietary extensions to FOSS.

We have also noted that while individual developers still have a key role to play in open source communities, modern communities like Eclipse are now dominated by vendor interests.

There has also been a lot of M&A activity involving open source, with some of the highest profile deals resulting in Oracle (almost owning MySQL) as well as Java and OpenSolaris, VMware owning SpringSource and Citrix owning Xen.

As well as buying into FOSS, proprietary vendors are also increasing their contributions to FOSS, with the highest profile example of that being that Microsoft is now a contributor to Linux and recently created the CodePlex Foundation to encourage wider contributions to open source – two developments that would have been unthinkable this time last year.

  • Accepting the inevitable?

For years Microsoft was seen as a King Cnut figure, attempting to hold back the open source waves – and not just commanding the waves to retreat but actively building walls and barriers to hold back the waves.

What happened is that overtime those waves slowly eroded those defenses until it became obvious that the company needed to stop building barriers and start building a boat in which it could ride the open source waves and find a way to co-exist with FOSS.

Microsoft is no different from any other proprietary vendor in this regard. The like sof IBM and Oracle and SAP have all had to find their own ways of coexisting with FOSS.

As a side-note, some people have been critical of Microsoft’s strategy here – pointing out that it is only interested in encouraging open source developers to promote its proprietary platform. On that I defer to Linus Torvalds and his view that “the ability to make the code better for your particular needs” is the point of open source.

And of course it is true that Microsoft has not invested $1bn in open source in the way that IBM did in Linux, but then less than a year later IBM was able to claim that it had recouped most of that $1bn in sales of proprietary software and services.

The result of all this, as Matt Asay put it, is that:

“Open source has won. Open source increasingly finds itself in virtually all software, open source or proprietary.”

If you want it, war is over
Of course, not everyone will see that as any kind of victory at all. As Andrew Oliver recently stated, “The only war is maintaining a distinction” between open source and proprietary.

In 2009 we have seen signs of push back from FOSS advocates in resistance to what they see as dilution of the open source brand. We are seeing increasing demands for the Open Source Definition, which defines open source licenses, to be applied also to development models and business and end user licensing strategies.

A software project might be licensed under an OSI-approved license, but if 98% of the developers are employees of a single company there is a valid question as to whether that is truly an open source development project. Equally if a user needs to acquire a proprietary license for key features and functionality, there is a valid question as to whether the overall software can be considered open source.

There has been growing debate on this issue and we would agree that the time to act is now given the rise of these mixed models and the increasing influence of proprietary vendors in open source projects.

This is especially true as mixed models are not inevitable. Red Hat is the most successful FOSS vendor and does not mix open source and proprietary licenses, and there are plenty of other example of vendors and users that take a pure approach to FOSS at Open World Forum.

Of course it must be remembered that even if you choose not to mix FOSS and proprietary licensing, FOSS must co-exist with proprietary software – if not within your own data centres then with the systems of your partners and customers, and it is important to note that isolationism could be just as damaging to the perception of FOSS as the dilution of the open source brand.

  • Accepting the inevitable?

Which brings us back to the image of Cnut, commanding the waves to go back, only this time we have FOSS advocates potentially battling the waves of mixed models.

So the question FOSS developers or users need to ask themselves is whether you are going to build barriers, or build boats, and find a way to co-exist on your own terms.

Is war over?
All of which begs the question of whether the war between FOSS and proprietary software is truly over. It’s worth returning to the declarations of victory again. The Economist also said:

“Open-source software has won the argument. Now a new threat to openness looms.”

While Mark Taylor from Sirius noted that:

“Open source may have won the argument, but that does not mean the world will now change.”

What Mark was referring to were the procurement policies that enable FOSS to be considered alongside proprietary software. We’ve seen multiple countries adopting polices that encourage the use of open source by government and enterprises, and the UK has just caught up with this, but it must be remembered that the procurement procedures for most organisations were set up specifically to deal with proprietary licensing. It will take time for that procedures to change and for FOSS to compete on a truly level playing field.

That’s one of the trends we expect to see emerging as a new battleground for FOSS in 2010 and beyond and another, that the Economist was referring to, is cloud computing, open data and the threat of platform lock-in.

In fact we have argued that we see open source as complementary to cloud computing and that open source has a role to play in reducing that lock-in, although that is perhaps the subject for another presentation entirely.

Other issues that are too important to simply be glossed over now but that will be discussed in the sessions at Open World Forum and in other blog posts include patents, open standards, open access and open government.

Two issues that I did want to conclude on though are those of FOSS as civic participation and FOSS as a public resource.

Since the Obama administration was elected in the US we’ve seen a massive move towards openness. That hasn’t, yet, resulted in a formal policy on FOSS, but we have seen White House director of new media, Macon Phillips, talking about open source as the “best form of civic participation” – of governments using open source to connect with citizens and encourage collaboration.

And I think we see that this is one of the reasons behind the European Commission’s interest in FOSS, alongside the closely-related issue of FOSS as a public resource. Recently we’ve seen The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, saying that it sees it has a duty, as a publicly funded organisation, to invest public funds in open source.

And its in that context that we have seen the recommendation added to the 2020 FLOSS Roadmap, that FOSS should be recognised as a public knowledge asset. I think that this, as well as the other issues mentioned above, will represent some of the emerging battlegrounds for FOSS in the next decade as the movement moves from a position of acceptance to a position where collaboration and sharing is recognised as a key driver in the promotion of the European software industry, and in enabling the digital recovery.

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#3 FreeBooteR on 10.01.09 at 10:54 am

Free software (as in freedom) exists regardless of whatever proprietary software does. Only an idiot would believe proprietary software is at peace with freedom. How can they lock you into their control if there is a suitable freedom alternative?

The war isn’t over by a long shot, it just began. Freedom software isn’t the aggressor, proprietary is, and they foam and chomp on the bit whenever someone has been freed from their dominion.

#4 Peter Vescuso on 10.01.09 at 5:23 pm

Matt, excellent perspective. I hasten to add that I believe from many a developer’s perspective, the ‘war’ was more an interesting ideological debate but largely irrelevant to their job of developing cool new innovations with software. FOSS has long been a potential ingredient in the innovation recipe if it meets the developer’s needs. Apparently it has been chosen often, and with increasing frequency, but that trend has less to do with the FOSS debate than the growing pool of code available for consideration. We at Black Duck and others have been calling this the “new pragmatism” in the developer’s world. Multi-source development using open source software with other code to enable faster, lower cost innovation puts the war back where development organization’s care most: in the market place.

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#8 GreyGeek on 10.02.09 at 5:30 pm

“a blend of both proprietary and open-source software”, a.k.a “mixed models”

“Microsoft a contributor to Linux” Only because they got caught using GPL code without complying with the GPL. They have promptly abandon support for the code they contributed back.

“CodePlex Foundation to encourage wider contribution to open source”. Those that believe that haven’t read the CodePlex bylaws.

“OSI licenses” equated to Open Source Licenses” (i.e. “equal” to the GPL) Oh really? Vendor “monitor” their OWN compliance to OSI definition, and ONLY the GPL guarantees the Four Freedoms!
IMO, the OSI is only selling Tux suits to proprietary houses for cash.

“Mixed models are not inevitable”. Only if the FOSS community remains vigilant and opposes any invasion into FOSS by the empire of the greedy.

“FOSS must co-exist with proprietary software” Why not the other way around? Proprietary software only got where it is by over charging, under supporting and stealing innovations made by others.

“Isolationism is just as damaging to FOSS as the dilution of the Open source “brand” (the GPL)? The “mixed model” strengthens FOSS? On what planet? The only organization I know diluting the meaning of the GPL is the OSI. They list about five dozen licenses claiming to be “open source”, but only one Rose in that garden of weeds gives the Four Freedoms, the GPL. ONLY the GPL allows for the growth of free software by prohibiting exploitation of the code and the efforts of those who volunteer their time and talent to write GPL software. All others are thieves, motivated by profit which they hope to convert to a guaranteed income stream using some form of lock-in. Their treatment of code licensed under the BSD demonstrates that, even if developer using the BSD don’t care.

“Will developers build barriers or boats”? Just who is the master of barriers (embrace, extend and extinguish), anyway? Besides, GPL developers build software which comes with the Four Freedoms. The ONLY software which can be a barrier is software which is patented, so as to LOCK OUT others and create an artificial scarcity from which a guaranteed income stream can be created. That’s why it is called PROPRIETARY software.

“open source complimentary to cloud computing”? “Cloud computing reduces lock-in” How? Actually the opposite is true. The goal of Cloud for proprietary software houses is to replace the expense of making and supporting a large numbers of boxes of an application, sold through the retail channel, by putting a few of those applications on a handful of Internet servers and allowing the application to be available via a web browser for a per-use charge. Patching, updating and improvements need be done only on the applications running on the handful of servers, not on the millions of applications running on the user’s PC. The Cloud also gives them the ability to add micro-charges for “services”, like backing up the user data (which is locked in, by the way), or adding a micro-charge for spell-checking, or for remote printing (carefully controlled so that the document cannot be saved to a local HD, etc….. When the Internet connection is down, or the user has lost their job and can’t afford a connection they can’t use the Cloud to print their resume or create other documents. With an application on their HD they can. These are reasons why the “Cloud” will fail in consumer land. In corporate land you have the problem of Federal and State government regulations which require tax and other private citizens data be stored ONLY on servers within the building occupied by the agency and under direct physical control of agency officials. In the State agency I worked for that involved armed guards. Manufacturing and technical jobs in the USA have been outsourced to countries where employee wages are only a fraction of US wages, and retirement, health benefits and environmental regulations are non-existent, thus lowering costs and increasing profits for multinational corporations, Corporations should be wise enough to realize that the owners of Cloud servers will ALSO outsource the physical servers to where the labor costs are the cheapest and the laws are most lax. Those locations are usually controlled by non-democratic governments. If those governments decide to look at corporate data on outsourced drives in their countries those corporations, whose stockholders, managers and upper level officers live in luxury and safety in the USA and other 1st world countries, may find themselves competing against their own technology or business plan, sold to an even more unscrupulous vendor than they are.

From the 2020 FOSS road map:
” the penetration of FLOSS continues, but at political level there is still some blocking. In spite of recognition from ‘intellectuals’. the alliance between security and proprietary has been reinforced, and has delayed the evolution of lawful environments. ” Politicians want campaign contributions, formerly known as bribes, before they’ll act. FOSS can’t pay bribes. Unlike GPL coders, lobbyiest don’t work for free.

“two new issues have emerged, which will need to be explored in the coming months: proprietary hardware platforms, which may slow the development of FLOSS , and proprietary data, which may create critical lock-ins even when software is free.” Apple isn’t the issue, Microsoft forcing PC OEMs to create hardware that will run only under a Windows OS is. Sharepoint and other Microsoft lock-ins can succeed ONLY if those in charge of data are too stupid to recognize the trap which will lead to their economic disadvantage. When their competitors avoid such lock-ins and thus apply their increased net income to improving their own business, advertising, research, better salaries and benefits, etc., and not Microsoft’s bottom line, those that chose data lock-ins will understand the difference, if it isn’t too late for them.

“The 2009 Synthesis insists on the need to encourage FLOSS users to contribute to FLOSS, not for altruistic reasons, but rather for egoistical ones. It literally recommends users to only help when it benefits themselves.” Writing GPL code is altruistic, because there is no guarantee that anyone will pick up that code, improve it, and return the improvements back to the community, thus enriching the original coder. However, encouraging FOSS coders to only help when it benefits themselves is just merely advocating the code for pay model, i.e., the proprietary model. Advocating that is nonsensee.

I first saw the term “mixed model” when referring to using both FOSS and Microsoft proprietary solutions as a “solution” when Glyn Moody reported on the infiltration of the EU Open Source Strategy Paper ( ” ACT and Comptia have been infiltrating every workgroup, even the one on Open Source (WG 7). They are doing the best they can to drown any initiative that would not only promote OSS in Europe but also that could help Europe create a successful European software sector.” Astute readers will recognize ACT and Comptia. They are proprietary front organizations started by Microsoft or one of its partners. Their initial job was to fight the US DOJ during it prosecution of Microsoft for monopolistic practices. Tactics included mailing letters to Congressmen from “grass roots” citizens who objected strenuously to any prosecuting of Microsoft only, because the letters claimed, Microsoft was successful. It turns out that when many of the writers were found to be residents of cemeteries it was realized that the campaign was false, and that the “grass” was really synthetic, i.e., “Astroturf”. Moody gives an excellent comparison to what the document writers wrote BEFORE ACT’s Jonathan Zuck became a member and what was written afterward. You should read that document to see what the mole wrote. At least, you should read the section of Moody’s report about the tampering that deals with patents and licensing.

It’s interesting to note that ACT found no need for a European office until Microsoft fell under investigation of its business practices by the EU. Now it has one, in Brussels.

“Is the War Over?” Has Microsoft been given the death penalty, as it should have been after the DOJ trial? After all, Bell Telephone was broken up for doing much less. If not, then no, the war is not over. What kind of corporate offices would make threats of lawsuits against Linux for claims of IP violations, then sell that IP to patent trolls, along with instructions on how to use the IP to sue people and business that use Linux and FOSS?

In the last year or two, with the big push by Novell’s de Icaza and Microsoft to infect Linux with MONO, there has been an invasion of Windows shareware application writers who think they see a golden financial opportunity to sell MONO versions of their .NET demoware products, partly because they realize that Mirosoft’s dekstop market share is declining and Linux’s is growing, as Ballmer has reported. To that end, they want major distro desktops to become dependent on MONO, despite the fact that EMCA 334 & 335 only cover the CLI, not the MONO GUI parts. Some are so brazen that they claim that those who favor MONO are the “true” Linux community and those who do not are the “faux” Linux community!

James Plamondon, the first Microsoft Technical Evangelist said that “Evangelism is War!”, and he meant it. He said, paraphrasing: “Every Linux application written with Microsoft’s API is a victory for Microsoft. Every Linux application written with GPL code is a defeat for Microsoft”. If the Linux desktop becomes dependent on MONO then Microsoft controls the Linux desktop, because Microsoft controls .NET, on which MONO depends. To deny that is to work for Microsoft’s control of the Linux desktop.

#9 Matthew Aslett on 10.04.09 at 3:28 pm

Well, where to start? Much of what you have written is your own opinion, which you are entitled to. While I may disagree with much of what you have to say, I cannot see any point in arguing with you either.

However, it is incumbent upon me to correct your misrepresentations of my post:

““OSI licenses” equated to Open Source Licenses” (i.e. “equal” to the GPL) Oh really? Vendor “monitor” their OWN compliance to OSI definition, and ONLY the GPL guarantees the Four Freedoms!”

That would be because the GPL is an FSF license. However, I wasn’t referring to FSF licenses, I was referring to licenses that meet the Open Source Definition. Therefore I referred to OSI-approved licenses.

““FOSS must co-exist with proprietary software” Why not the other way around? ”
It stands to reason that if FOSS must co-exist with proprietary software, proprietary software must co-exist with FOSS. That is why it is called co-existing.

“The “mixed model” strengthens FOSS? On what planet?”
Nowhere in my post at any point did I state or imply that mixed models strengthen FOSS.

““Cloud computing reduces lock-in””
Nowhere in my post did I state or imply that cloud computing reduces lock-in. What I stated was that we believe that open source has a role to play in reducing the risk of lock-in inherent in cloud computing.

I have read both the he EU Open Source Strategy Paper and Glyn Moody’s excellent assessment of it. Thanks.

Actually, you know I will argue with you about one thing:
“only one Rose in that garden of weeds gives the Four Freedoms”
You do realise that the Free Software Foundation lists over 70 free software licenses – including the BSD license?

#10 turtlewax on 10.02.09 at 7:16 pm

>>there has been an invasion of Windows shareware application
>>writers who think they see a golden financial opportunity
>> to sell MONO versions of their .NET demoware products,
>>partly because they realize that Mirosoft’s dekstop market
>>share is declining and Linux’s is growing

Half right. Windows is declining, but Linux isn’t growing. In fact it declined in 2009. OSX seems to be hurting Windows more than Linux. Though of course I’m sure Windows, Linux, and OSX users could each tweak google-trends to satisfy their preferences.

#11 GreyGeek on 10.02.09 at 10:50 pm

“Windows is declining, but Linux isn’t growing”

Yup, that’s what IDG, Forrester, Gartner and other groups dependent on accounts receivables from Microsoft say. Why, even NetApplications said Linux had less than 1% desktop market share. Then, that pesky Ballmer displayed his famous graphic, blowing his carefully crafted and purchased disinformation campaign out of the water. If you read the Comes vs Microsoft document, 3096.pdf, you would have learned about James Plamondon, the first Technical Evangelist, and his plan of using the “Slog”, the “Stacked Panel”, the payed off analyst or the coached reporter, the quid quo pro laptop in exchange for favorable stories about VISTA… ad nauseum… “Just keep rubbing it in, via the press, analysts, newsgroups, whatever. Make the complete failure of the competition’s technology part of the mythology of the computer industry.”

While Apple sales ARE hurting Windows sales, Linux’s desktop market share is increasing, NOT declining. Google-Trends only measures time-dependent Internet traffic about a topic. It doesn’t measure retail channel sales for an OS. The US retail channel sales shows Microsoft decreasing while Apple, SELS, RH and Mandriva are increasing. However, US retail channel sales are but a small part of the rapid growth of Linux on the desktop. No one can track Linux adoption rates because a single iso download can be, and usually is, used to install Linux on more than one machine. That leaves only Linux server sales in retail channels. They are increasing, not decreasing. The world wide Linux desktop market share is growing rapidly, if not exponentially, Bob Sutor not withstanding.

For example, one Kubuntu iso populated three laptops in my home. I have used it to install Linux on nearly a dozen of my friends computers. Apple is and will remains a niche market because most who purchase new or used laptops, notebooks or netbooks cannot afford the price of an Apple or do not want to be locked into expensive Apple software. This is especially true as the laptop follows the desktop to the bottom of the commodity curve. A $300 OS won’t appeal to someone who has just purchased a used, or a new sub $300 computer, especially if the computer isn’t powerful enough to run it. A free OS even runs on older, slower machines, that doesn’t require the purchase of additional AV software, or CD burning software, or even more expensive office software just to do something productive will be the OS of choice, even though Microsoft is, again, turning a blind eye to pirating Windows. However, even Linux iso downloads, if it could be accurately measured, is not an indicator of the Linux desktop market.

China and India are. Five months ago it was reported that 30% of China’s desktops ran Linux and 60% ran Windows. “These governments—city and provincial—compared the performance, capabilities and price of desktop Linux and Windows and they considered whether they could migrate all their applications from Windows to Linux. So finally about 30 percent of desktops in China now use Linux. Microsoft has about 60 percent.” That’s from the agency that make RedFlag Linux, China’s own version of Linux. Within the next 8 years Asia will adopt 861 million computers, compared with 92 million in the US, 130 million in Europe and 160 million in South America. Linux will be running the desktop on more computers around the world than there are people in the USA. As the netbook sales increase, and older computers are brought back into service because of the economy it will be Linux that will be used to revitalize them. Linux and its applications are free.

Even though China’s broadband connections have only 7% penetration that number puts China at #1 in broadband users, with 88 million, ahead of the US and Japan. Their lead will only increase. Why is that? Because research has shown that Internet penetration is proportional to the number of users with a tertiary (college) education. Within 5 years China will have 5 TIMES as many college graduates as the USA.

The future of personal computer use is in China. If 30% of computer users in China are using Linux now, at least that percentage should prevail five years from now, if not more. Commoditization of ALL computers favors only Linux. Windows piracy in China won’t help Microsoft’s revenue model if China doesn’t force the pirates to purchase legal copies of Windows. Token prosecutions of the past isn’t a deterent to Windows use, but Windows notorious and continuing susceptibility to malware will eventually lead most people to move to Linux IF Microsoft doesn’t adopt a BSD derivative like Apple did. I expect them to follow Apple’s lead after malware drives Win7 off the market. In America, news organizations cannot continue reporting stories about 1 million zombie bot farms, failures of power station or warship control systems, of crashes of stock market trading programs without eventually exposing Microsoft & Windows role in those debacles.

#12 Anonymous on 10.05.09 at 1:26 pm


#13 Anonymous on 10.05.09 at 1:37 pm


#14 No Koolaid on 10.07.09 at 2:11 pm

“Since the Obama administration was elected in the US we’ve seen a massive move towards openness.”

Hardy har har har hahahahhaha guffaw guffaw. Ha ha hah ahhahahahahhhhahhahah! Yow!

Good one.

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