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Devil's dollars drive open source

Irony, thy name is 'proprietary'

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Open...and Shut Salesforce is reported to be in the market for DimDim, an open-source provider of web conferencing software.

For those about to erupt into anguish over the prospects of another open-source company falling into the grip of a proprietary software company, save the tears.

After all, it is one of the oft-ignored ironies of open-source software that it is largely dependent upon proprietary software profits to sustain and magnify its existence. At least, the more popular open-source projects are, whether commercial or community-led.

Before anyone attempts to shriek me into silence, think about who writes most of the world's software. Like 99 per cent of it. Or more.

It's not Red Hat. Not SugarCRM. Not MySQL-turned-Sun-turned-Oracle.

The vast majority of software isn't written by "open-source companies." It's written by proprietary software companies or by non-software companies, like financial services firms, who write software to satisfy internal needs.

For that matter, the vast majority of open-source software isn't written by open-source companies. Google contributes more open-source software than Red Hat, for example, most recently open sourcing an Apache server module for improving website performance. And as the software world moves to the web, Facebook, Yahoo!, Twitter, and even Microsoft (gasp!) will outpace their open-source peers in terms of open-source software contributions. The less software is responsible for directly driving sales, the more it will find itself under an open-source license, written by companies who would never describe themselves as open-source software companies, or software companies at all.

Or perhaps it will be found within open-source foundations like the Apache Software Foundation... almost completely funded by proprietary technology firms. Why? Because they can afford to contribute cash and developers to open-source projects that (wait for it) serve as free complements to their paid, proprietary offerings. The core development of every major open-source project I'm familiar with is done largely by developers employed by companies whose business is selling proprietary software, hardware, or services.

Interestingly, even those companies that do describe themselves as "open-source companies" will increasingly depend upon proprietary software profits to reach their full potential. While some private open-source companies have speculated about IPOs for years, the reality is that the IPO market is largely a myth these days, whether you're an open-source company or a proprietary company.

So where will all those venture-backed open-source companies go to appease investors? They'll run into the arms of proprietary software companies, who stand ready to acquire them. Who else can afford them? No one, as Tim O'Reilly called out years ago.

It's not as if Red Hat has been on a buying binge. It simply can't afford to buy out the open-source software world, even if it had a mind to do so. Red Hat, while wonderfully successful, isn't swimming in the kind of cash that Oracle, Microsoft, and other proprietary software companies can use to subsidize strategic investments in open-source companies.

Red Hat can't afford a dilutive acquisition. Not easily, anyway. It needs its purchases to be largely accretive from the start (though Qumranet may signal a willingness to initially lose money on a deal to gain important technology that will contribute to long-term revenue growth). The only largish, successful, and profitable open-source company I know is Alfresco, my old employer, and Red Hat's not really in the content management business.

Red Hat's proprietary peers, however, have no such problems. And much as we may moan about the proprietary firms swallowing open-source potential, our fears may be misplaced.

Oracle, for all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth it inspires, may prove Sun/MySQL's best friend, in large part because Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison has been churning out proprietary profits for decades, profits that are now funding significant investments in core open-source technology.

By all means, we in the open-source world should continue to rage against the proprietary software machine. But it's also worth remembering who ultimately pays to make Linux, Apache, MySQL and the rest hum. The Great Satan of proprietary software. Get used to it. ®

Matt Asay is chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears every Friday on The Register.

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