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Open Source's Commercial Future

SANTA CLARA -- Open Source has a bright future as a building block in commercial software that also includes proprietary elements.

That seemed to be the consensus among a panel of open source experts at a conference sponsored by the non-profit SD Forum here Thursday. While open source software is often seen as free, labor-of-love projects, that's a misguided assumption, according to VA Software founder Larry Augustin.

Recalling the creation of the term "open source," Augustin said, "The whole reason we pushed the term was for the enablement of a commercial industry." Basically, open source refers to the underlying source code in a program that is available for anyone to see, use and modify under license terms.

The SD Forum event focused on the future of commercial open source, which can include formerly proprietary code that a vendor chooses to make open source. Sun Microsystems has said it intends to make most, if not all, of its software open source.

"I recently talked with a CIO who expressed the view that [open source] was free, but his experience was that it cost him a lot of money," said Simon Phipps, the chief open source officer at Sun . Just because software is free, he pointed out, there are support, training and other costs with any software, particularly in an enterprise deployment.

Rod Smith, corporate vice president for emerging technology at IBM , echoed that view, recalling another corporate customer. "They found code that met some of their requirements. ... It didn't really save them money, but they didn't really expect it to. A year ago, I talked to enterprises that were not too thrilled with open source, but now they look at the integration and partners involved, and they see the value."

"If you're too religious about being all open source, you're not serving your customers well," said Smith.

Attendee Eero Teerikorpi, CEO of middleware software provider Continuent, told internetnews.com he agreed with Smith, noting that some "pure" open source companies need to add value with proprietary code to remain competitive. "Open source can be at the core, but there can be your own overlay that is the real value," he said.

Sun's Phipps made the point that open source needs to be seen as one of many tactics for developers and software companies, not as a business model.

Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, added that many companies that we don't think of as open source do use open source software. "Is Apple an open source company, with the Mac OS X based on BSD ?" he asked. "Open source mixed with proprietary code can help you get where you want to faster."

Phipps said Microsoft could benefit greatly by moving to open source. "The first thing they could do is open up their software to get help fixing all the bugs in their products."

O'Reilly predicted that by 2010, open source won't be the subject of much discussion or debate because of its broad acceptance. "It'll be part of every business and every company's strategy, so it won't be new," he said.

"There will be other things upsetting the apple cart, and people will again say it won't have an impact." He compared the effort by some to marginalize open source to those who once said the PC was a toy that would never be the widely used business tool it is today.