RealTime IT News

Open Source as Weapon

It seems like every major software maker has gotten open source religion, with Sun Microsystems now considering opening its Solaris code and Microsoft posting some source code into a Linux lair.

Experts tick off compelling reasons why a vendor of closed-source software might release code: to make the product more ubiquitous, speed development, get fresh ideas from outside the company, to complement a core revenue stream, foster a new technology -- and to stymie a competitor.

In fact, giving away some free company IP can go a long way toward making someone else's IP worth beans.

Martin Fink, author of "The Business and Economics of Linux and Open Source," notes that, while all commercial software decreases in value over time, open source drastically speeds the process. The huge community of developers working together can produce a competitive open source product fast, and they'll add features for which a closed-source vendor would want to charge extra.

Finally, customers can acquire the software at no cost, even though they may pay for customization, integration and support.

Instead of trying to beat open source products, Fink wrote, smart companies use the process to beat their competitors.

Said Matt Asay, director of Novell's Linux Business Office: "In the friendly world of capitalism, that's thought of as a good thing, but it does undercut the idea that open source is about sharing."

Among all the big companies that have jumped into open source with the belief that collaboration is a great thing and yields great code, Asay also said "There's a healthy dose of 'what can we contribute that will hurt our competitors?'"

Although Novell has claimed it didn't acquire SUSE Linux to compete with Microsoft , the acquisition of the Linux distribution could make it a big target as the open source movement continues to challenge Microsoft's dominance of operating systems and productivity software. "But Microsoft picking on us wouldn't stop the open source tide," he said. "So they spend resources trying to stop the tide. It gives us cover."

At the same time, Novell's participation in the OpenOffice project could take a piece out of Microsoft's desktop business -- someday. Sun Microsystems is in on that action, promoting its StarOffice open source business software suite as an alternative to Microsoft Office. Sun released the code to the OpenOffice community and built StarOffice using OpenOffice source, APIs , file formats and reference implementations.

"Sun has used open source as tactical weapon with OpenOffice and StarOffice," said John Koenig, an open source SIG moderator with the non-profit Software Development Forum and president of RiseForth, a consultancy. "They're looking at it as not a moneymaker but as a way to try to commoditize that part of Microsoft's business."

Faced with Microsoft's move into server software, IBM dropped its own server offering and threw its weight behind open source Web server Apache . At the time, in 1998, Apache had about 50 percent of the market, according to Koenig, with Microsoft steadily eroding IBM's share. Now, Apache is the dominant Web server, while IBM has moved up the stack with the introduction of its WebSphere line of application servers that run on top of Apache.

In fact, IBM is considered by many in the industry to be the Sun Tzu of using open source in the art of war. In 2001, it created Eclipse, an open source application platform that many saw as a way to short-circuit the popularity of Sun's NetBeans platform. Eclipse, the framework for IBM's Rational software division, was reorganized as an independent non-profit in January 2004. IBM executives didn't return several requests for interviews.

Since Eclipse lets developers target Linux, Java or Windows in their development work, it potentially replaces Sun's or Microsoft's technologies with a standard cross-development framework in which IBM can better integrate its Rational tools, according to Koenig. "A lot of people used [Sun's] Solaris as their development platform in the past. Now, even for Linux, the major development platform is actually Microsoft Visual Studio," he said.

"IBM is trying to use Eclipse to gather all developers onto one platform for which they can sell higher-end tools, such as what comes out of the Rational suite."

Real Networks used open source to gain market share and speed development with its Helix DNA Project. The open source platform includes a multi-format player, client and server. While it had fallen behind Microsoft in desktop media player installations, Real saw real opportunity in the burgeoning global mobile phone sector. But faced with developing versions of Helix for hundreds of different handsets, the company threw up its hands and threw open the code.

Real has always offered free products, such as RealPlayer and RealProducer Basic, its media encoder, while making money on its subscription services Rhapsody and SuperPass. "We said to ourselves, rather than continually bringing out no-cost but proprietary software, we should look at leveraging our customers and users," said Kevin Foreman, general manager for Helix technology at Real. "Because Microsoft has $50 billion in the bank, they could out-engineer us. But they can't out-engineer the world." Real open-sourced the latest version of its media engine, offering commercial and general public licenses, leaving out the patented audio and video compression codecs.

Throwing development open to the world can jumpstart a technology's reach, Real found. "The Helix DNA client is being ported to 12 different operating systems, some of which I wouldn't even have been able to pronounce," Foreman said.

"The true beneficiaries of RealNetworks' Helix are OEM and ISV partners instead of random open source developers," said analyst Stacey Quandt of Quandt Analytics. "Real's commercial open source license provides the ability for partners to put a media player on a cell phone or to create a derivative work such as a specialized medical imaging application." She said this illustrates a key benefit of open source. "It can spur innovation and deliver faster time-to-market."

Even Microsoft is starting to bend in some sectors regarding code. In November 2003, Microsoft announced it would offer royalty-free licensing for its XML schemas in Office 2003. It followed up in April, when it released WiX, an XML toolset, to the open source community. WiX, used to build Windows installation packages, is the first project from Microsoft to be released under the Common Public License. Then, in May, it open sourced the Windows Template Library (WTL).

Jason Matusow, manager of Microsoft's Shared Source Initiative, said that, in a nutshell, Redmond opens its code to keep customers happy and coming back.

He said the Shared Source Initiative, which makes some Microsoft source code available to partners, customers, ISVs and researchers, has four goals: supporting customers that create custom applications; creating new opportunities for independent developers; allowing researchers and universities to use the code for teaching and learning; and allowing business partners to build products on top of it.

Microsoft has 16 different Shared Source Licensing programs. Half of them allow for redistribution, and six allow licensees to commercialize the code.

"There's no revenue generated from Shared Source, but the hope is that in the long term, if they have a more positive experience, they'll come back and continue to be Microsoft customers," Matusow said.

But Shared Source has been criticized as less than open. "To a large degree, Microsoft's Shared Source Initiative is a policy of 'look but don't touch,'" said Quandt. "The rare exception is the Windows CE Shared Source Premium Licensing Program available to companies, which brings Windows CE-based devices and solutions to market. This is the only Windows program under the Shared Source Initiative that provides original OEMs, silicon vendors, and systems integrators full access to Windows CE source code."

However, Microsoft's strategy may be changing. In the case of WTL, a windowing C++ template library that had been available on the Microsoft Developers Network for several years, Microsoft posted the code on SourceForge, the open source development portal, in order to let the community take over maintaining and enhancing it. "That community had been very vocal about saying we hadn't done a good job of bringing it forward and fixing bugs," Matusow said. "Putting it on SourceForge gave that community some autonomy around the code they cared about."

At any rate, said Novell's Asay, "It's probably healthy for people generally to take a cautious look at open source and to be aware that there are competitive strategies going on at every company."