Will All Software Go Open Source?

PALO ALTO, CALIF. — When open source developers gather on a panel to discuss whether “all software will go open source,” you can expect the sentiment to tip that way, only with lots of arguments.

A larger question under scrutiny at the AlwaysOn Innovation Summit on the Stanford University campus here was whether it might someday become the dominant paradigm for software development.

“There is no technical argument for keeping code closed. It will never deteriorate being open,” said Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL. “Companies have to choose how to make money and today that includes choosing proprietary elements. Maybe five or ten years from now we’ll figure out how to make money and [still] keep all the lines of code open.”

Even this panel agreed that, while they don’t see open source  as ready to take over the software industry, its growth will continue and buttress the success of commercial software.

They also agreed that however broad the interest in open source development, plenty of gaps exist, and some for good reason.

“There are certain technologies that for whatever reason open source hasn’t taken hold,” said Mark Spencer, founder and president of Digium. He listed speech recognition and text-to-speech software as examples. Another panelist mentioned software drivers and 3D graphics cards, which the hardware companies tend to keep proprietary.

“My favorite example is TurboTax,” said Bruce Perens, vice president of policy at SourceLabs and author of the Open Source Definition. Because of the changing nature of the tax code, TurboTax requires regular, time-sensitive updates that a commercial publisher is best equipped to provide.

Perens also noted the numerous legal implications of what TurboTax does that leaves the publisher open to enormous legal liability should the program perform incorrectly. Few, if any, open source startups would want those kinds of headaches.

Then came talk of patent lawsuits in the context of so-called patent trolls. The term refers to companies that register patents for technologies and processes, essentially wait for other companies to bring products to market that use those processes, then demand licensing revenue from those companies.

Still, Ron Hovsepian, CEO of Novell, said patents are an important protection for companies to build intellectual property assets. Novell uses both open source and commercial proprietary code in its products.

It’s about how you translate that IP in your products which is a very different discussion,” said Hovsepian. “There’s an implication that everyone will do bad things with patents.”

Hovsepian pointed to the The Innovation Network launched last year with the backing of IBM, Novell, Philips, Red Hat and Sony. Its purpose is to use patents to promote the Linux environment and create more of a collaborative ecosystem.

“Anyone can get a free license to the patents, and as long as there is no litigation to open source companies, they will get the rights to use that portfolio,” said Hovsepian.

But MySQL’s Mickos called patents the “Achilles heel” of the entire software industry. “And we can thank patent trolls for this,” he said.

“It’s like smoking,” Mickos continued. “At first people thought it had healing effects and was cool, and now they realize it’s killing people. Software patents are just plain bad.”

Perens of SourceLabs agreed, while stepping up the tone of his remarks.

“I don’t understand how small developers will continue if we have an increase in software patent litigation. From an open source perspective, the guys who do a ton of innovation, how do they survive that first lawsuit regardless of the justice of the claim? You could spend a million dollars to prove you’re right.”

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