n March of this year, representatives from more than 100 software companies met to discuss the state of open-source software. Their conclusions are described in a 16-page report, "2007 Open Source Think Tank: The Future of Commercial Open Source," which is free to download (PDF).
The Open Source Think Tank report contains some surprising conclusions. For instance, participants noted a growing similarity in methods between open-source and proprietary software development. They predicted some kind of convergence, where the best of both approaches gets adopted in each camp.
The idea of convergence seems counterintuitive. For instance, at last year's Open Source Think Tank meeting, participants were expecting open-source software to achieve greater predominance. However, licensing and support issues have slowed the adoption of open-source solutions at the enterprise level. At the same time, proprietary software developers can't match the pace and scope of open-source development efforts.
Proprietary vendors have already adopted some features of open-source development. For instance, proprietary vendors have been moving toward using increased collaboration in developing software. They are also following the open-source bandwagon by releasing software versions and bug patches more frequently, and they are distributing free trial software. Companies such as Microsoft, Oracle and Adobe are contributing technologies and products as open-source code and cultivating open-source communities.
On the other side of the coin, open-source software developers have adopted aspects of the proprietary model. Most notably, these open-source companies are seeking profit from the sale of licenses, support and professional services. Some even offer indemnification to company executives deploying the open-source software.
This year's Think Tank participants expected to see a hybrid model emerging, combining the best of open-source and proprietary methods. One of the drivers that will spur this trend, according to the report, is software as a service and the "acceleration of the subscription model vs. the traditional license model."
Open source suffers from monetization problems, unlike the proprietary software industry. However, open source is superior to the proprietary approach by its community involvement and rapid development cycle times. The hybrid approach thus represents the "best of both worlds," according to the report.
One potential threat to open source is a pullback of funding by venture capital investors. The report stated that "the difficulty in building strong open source business models could jeopardize the future as venture and other investment capital is redeployed, away from software startups."
Licensing and Patent Problems
A controversial issue at the meeting was licensing for open-source software. Open-source licensing is a point of great confusion that isn't helping industry adoption of open-source solutions. In particular, participants had problems with the GNU General Public License (GPL) Version 3, which is incompatible with GPL Version 2. This incompatibility may threaten a split in the open-source Linux community, according to Think Tank participants.
In this context, the patent-sharing deal between Novell and Microsoft arose. The deal, announced in February of last year, aimed to enable better interaction between Microsoft Windows and Novell's SuSE Linux Enterprise open-source operating system, but it caused great unease among the open-source community.
Mark Radcliffe, senior partner at DLA Piper and co-counsel for the Open Source Initiative, stated that the third draft of the GPL Version 3 would include provisions to "preclude future agreements similar to Novell-Microsoft (although that particular deal would be grandfathered into GPLv3)."
Sam Ramji, Microsoft's director of open source technical strategy, denied that Microsoft's deal with Novell was initiated to split the Linux community. He said the deal was motivated by customer demand and the need to have interoperability between Windows and Linux in the enterprise. He fended off the argument that the deal with Novell was set up to enable Microsoft to sue Linux distributors for patent infringement in the near future. The report cites Ramji as claiming that "Microsoft has offensively sued another party for patent infringement only twice in its history."
Justin Steinman, Novell's director of marking for Linux and open platforms, described the deal with Microsoft as a way for Novell to differentiate from its competitor, Red Hat, and gain new accounts. For instance, Novell added "over 40,000 new subscriptions through Microsoft in the last quarter," according to Steinman in the report. He countered that Novell had consulted with open-source leaders before going ahead with the Microsoft-Novell deal.
Open Source Goals
Think Tank participants agreed on a few goals for open source. First, they want to eliminate its confusing licensing terms and establish an OSI-approved open-source license that better meets the needs of commercial open-source vendors. They also expressed a need for a new industry body to better address the requirements of commercial open-source vendors. Think Tank participants stated that the Linux Foundation and OSI are not meeting those needs.
The participants also had some concerns, noting the small number of "successful" open-source companies. They added that it would be difficult to build strong open-source business models if venture capital pulls away from funding software startup companies.