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Cloudy bigshots eclipse open source

Cloud computing and mobile hog the limelight

Sitting man with laptop in front of city emerging from clouds

Open... and Shut Open source seems to have waned in importance over the past few years as cloud computing and mobile have taken centre stage.

Of course open source remains a key ingredient for cloud infrastructure and mobile tooling, but is it still important for end users? About as much as it ever was, which is to say, not very much. So while cloud computing isn't going to render open source obsolete anytime soon, as Alfresco chief technology officer John Newton argues, it's certainly not going to command much CIO buying behavior, either.

This isn't to suggest that open source doesn't matter at all to end users, but let's not overstate how much the average consumer or enterprise actually cares that what they buy has "Open Source Inside". While an imperfect measure, have a look at the frequency of searches for "open source", "cloud" and "mobile" on Google. Open source is a rounding error.

So, too, is cloud. This isn't surprising because enterprises and consumers don't actually want "cloud", per se. They want the flexibility and ease of installation that cloud products like and Basecamp yield. They're looking for solutions to business problems, not a chance to play buzzword bingo.

However, if you compare cloud against open source in isolation, in late 2008 cloud surpassed open source in terms of search popularity and has exploded since, while open source as a keyword has been in steady decline since 2005.

Governments care about open source, and have considered mandating open source adoption for nearly a decade. That's a really bad idea, for reasons I've outlined before. But for most people, the ends justify the means in terms of technology adoption. Sometimes open source is an important way to get to a particular end, such as flexible licensing so as to minimise vendor lock-in. And quite often open-source software is higher quality than proprietary software, if for no other reason than it tends to attract high-quality developers who don't want their publicly accessible code to be junk.

Newton rightly reasons that "the cloud is built from open source", but perhaps takes his argument a bit too far in suggesting that prospective buyers have a lot to gain from buying open-source software that is run as a cloud service:

Open source is transparent and you know exactly how it works. Unlike running software on-premise, you have no idea how software works in the cloud, how it is encrypted or how your data is being stored. In addition, open source means that you are not locked into the software that you are running, whether it is running in the cloud or not. You have the choice to deploy it elsewhere and there is no cost to doing so.

All of which is true so far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far. One of the primary reasons that cloud has been such a big hit is precisely that enterprises and individuals don't want to be bothered with the inner workings of their software. They just want software to work without all the bother of things like installation and inspection.

This is why many of us view cloud as the natural heir to open source, rather than a real competitor. Many of the arguments used to favour open-source adoption – such as try-before-you-buy and getting work done without involving IT bureaucracy – are actually more true of cloud computing than they ever were of open source.

Cloud is much more user-friendly. Open source has largely been a boon to developers, to vendors. It enables companies like Google or Facebook to build high-performance infrastructure using the collective work of thousands of developers who are not on its payroll. Ditto for Alfresco, Microsoft, and other enterprise vendors.

Open source, in other words, remains a hugely important aspect of software development, and will be so for years to come. But while it's relevant to IT buyers, it is not their first consideration in choosing a product, nor should it be. To the extent that they build their own applications internally, most will heavily embrace open source. But when enterprises are looking for a vendor to help solve a business problem through software, they largely don't care whether open source is listed as an ingredient on the can. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco'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 three times a week on The Register.

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