Open Source For The Next Generation

NEWTON, Mass. — What do Google search, AOL IM and Apple iTunes have in common?

For one, they are teenager technology touchstones, used millions of times each day to find information, chat with friends and buy music. Perhaps less obvious, they are examples of software-as-a-service.

For today’s young adults, buying shrink-wrapped software to load on a PC is as foreign as fiddling with rabbit ears to improve TV reception.

Understanding future buyers’ expectations is important for software companies plotting strategy, Hal Stern, CTO of Sun Microsystems software group, said at the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) here today.

“In 10 years these are the people we will sell to,” said Stern, who is the father of an 11-year-old and 14-year-old. “They are the next generation of IT professionals.”

Since teens are used to seamlessness and simplicity, it’s crucial to focus on how applications are assembled. The open source model and interoperability protocols such as Web Services and Service Oriented Architecture can provide flexibility.

Sun has been practicing what it preaches lately. Last month, it announced a partnership with Google that could lead to a Web-based version of OpenOffice.

And in January, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based systems vendor unwrapped the code to its Solaris operating system and other projects. The OpenSolaris initiative also includes a new community, advisory board and intellectual property rights.

Some of the dire predictions about open source simply haven’t come true, Stern said. The idea that a software company can’t make money has been disputed by Red Hat (which today laid out its product road map for the next two years) and others. Stern also contended that open source does not pose more of a security threat than proprietary applications.

The key is choosing a viable business model and there are several, Stern said. An open source company can offer premium content, integration and consulting or update, patch and monitoring services.

Stern said open sourcing software program doesn’t mean that a company is passing on responsibility for advancing the code. Many of the major innovations will still come from corporations, with the open source community providing bug checks and fixes and plug-ins.

Moving Solaris or other programs to the open source model isn’t without its challenges however, Stern said. For example, rules governing what outside contributors can add to the Solaris base needed to be hammered out to ensure stability, he said.

Matt Asay, OSBC’s cofounder and program director, echoed Stern’s comments about flexibility. Modularity, or the ability for community members and customers to easily build plug-ins, is one of the keys to open source success, he said.

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