Tangled Webs

   Getting What You Didn't Pay For
Issue 3.11
Oct 23, 1998

Open Software?

Make no mistake about it. Microsoft will eventually lose the chokehold it currently has on the computer industry. It's not going to happen soon, and it's not going to have anything to do with the US Department of Justice, but it will happen. As long as Microsoft controls the standards, they control the industry. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the open software movement will eventually wrest that control from Microsoft.

Open software is free software usually developed by dozens or even hundreds of individual programmers all over the world, each adding features and fixing bugs whenever they feel such changes are needed. A small core group then decides which changes are put into the official version, of which there may be several. The source code is available for free to anyone who wants to see it or build upon it, but such modifications must also be made publicly available.

So how is the quality of open software? In general, far better than comparable commercial software. The Linux operating system, for example, is faster than NT, has much lower hardware requirements, fewer bugs, more timely updates, more knowledgeable and less expensive technical support, runs on more kinds of hardware, is more stable, and provides greater flexibility in networking. However, since Linux is free and NT Server costs $1,000, most companies prefer NT. Yes, you read that correctly. It will make more sense in a minute.

Never Heard of It!

The fact is that most technical decisions involve non-technical people, and in the end are made for non-technical reasons. People want to buy brands with which they are familiar, and very few non-technical people have heard of open-software products. After all, since they are free, there are no media blitzes, no elaborate publicity stunts, no full page ads in the Wall Street Journal, and no perks for the few reporters who write about this software. No matter how good the software is, it simply doesn't get press.

For example, most people are unaware that both Netscape and Microsoft have been steadily loosing market share in the web server market. Open software Apache has over 53% of the market and is increasing its lead every month. If Apache was a commercial product, it would be a media darling. Venture capitalists would be throwing money at it, underwriters would be convincing management to IPO, and there would be high-profile media events involving aging rock stars. However, since Apache is developed and distributed for free, there is no need for venture funding or IPO. It's simply great software. And where's the story in that?

Furthermore, since open software is free, magazines devoted to it don't get top-dollar advertising. As a result, they usually have a crude, hobbyist look to them despite often excellent content. The result is hardly confidence inspiring to the corporate world.

Things are starting to change for open software, however. Corel, Oracle, Sybase and Netscape are all developing their flagship products for the Linux platform. These are commercial products, of course, but the fact that these industry heavyweights are committing themselves to Linux will go a long way to dispelling its hobbyist image.

The most recent, and perhaps the most important, endorsement of open software has come from IBM, who has started shipping Apache with its WebSphere application server, and will start participating in the Apache group. IBM will not have the final say over what Apache becomes, and any improvements they make to the product will be freely available to the rest of the word.

Are IBM and these other companies participating because they believe in spirit of the open software movement? Hell no! They are doing it because a lot of non-technical people at these companies now understand that it is in their best financial interests to commit to open software, and that's what gives me hope for the movement. And with more and more minds working on development, such software can only get better.

Taking Back What's Ours

Open-software will allow consumers and corporate users to regain control of their own computer systems. Companies will be able to select from a variety of operating systems and applications that are designed to work together rather than designed to be subtly incompatible with the competition's product. Furthermore, being a slave to upgrades will become a thing of the past. Systems will be upgraded when requirements demand it, not because of designed-in incompatibilities in the new software.

Now don't go running out and shorting Microsoft just yet. The company makes good software and will remain healthy for a long time to come. However, as open software gains the backing of major industry players, its quality will further increase, and the general public will begin to see it as the stable and sophisticated software it is. At some point, Microsoft will be forced to either support open software standards or start losing market share. Once that happens, they will have lost the complete control they now enjoy.

When you think about it, this is exactly what happened to IBM with hardware in the 1980s. Once they lost control of the hardware standards, fewer and fewer companies were willing to pay their exorbitant prices. The same thing is about to happen with software, and it's no small irony that IBM is at the forefront of the movement.

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© Copyright 1998, Tim Romero, t3@vanguardjp.com
This article fist appeared in the December issue of Computing Japan.
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