Open Source as Weapon

Peace, Love and Open Source? Don't believe it. Companies can and do wield open source as a weapon.
It seems like every major software maker has gotten open source religion, with Sun Microsystems now considering opening its Solaris code and Microsoft posting some source code into a Linux lair.

Experts tick off compelling reasons why a vendor of closed-source software might release code: to make the product more ubiquitous, speed development, get fresh ideas from outside the company, to complement a core revenue stream, foster a new technology -- and to stymie a competitor.

In fact, giving away some free company IP can go a long way toward making someone else's IP worth beans.

Martin Fink, author of ''The Business and Economics of Linux and Open Source,'' notes that, while all software decreases in value over time, open source drastically speeds the process. The huge community of developers working together can produce a competitive open source product fast, and they'll add features for which a closed-source vendor would want to charge extra.

Finally, customers can acquire the software at no cost, even though they may pay for customization, integration and support.

Instead of trying to beat open source products, Fink wrote, smart companies use the process to beat their competitors.

Said Matt Asay, director of Novell's Linux Business Office: ''In the friendly world of capitalism, that's thought of as a good thing, but it does undercut the idea that open source is about sharing.''

Among all the big companies that have jumped into open source with the belief that collaboration is a great thing and yields great code, Asay also said ''there's a healthy dose of, 'What can we contribute that will hurt our competitors?' ''

Although Novell has claimed it didn't acquire SUSE Linux to compete with Microsoft, the acquisition of the Linux distribution could make it a big target as the open source movement continues to challenge Microsoft's dominance of operating systems and productivity software. ''But Microsoft picking on us wouldn't stop the open source tide,'' he said. ''So they spend resources trying to stop the tide. It gives us cover.''

At the same time, Novell's participation in the OpenOffice project could take a piece out of Microsoft's desktop business -- someday. Sun Microsystems is in on that action, promoting its StarOffice open source business software suite as an alternative to Microsoft Office. Sun released the code to the OpenOffice community and built StarOffice using OpenOffice source, APIs, file formats and reference implementations.

''Sun has used open source as tactical weapon with OpenOffice and StarOffice,'' said John Koenig, an open source SIG moderator with the non-profit Software Development Forum and president of RiseForth, a consultancy. ''They're looking at it as not a moneymaker but as a way to try to commoditize that part of Microsoft's business.''

Faced with Microsoft's move into server software, IBM dropped its own server offering and threw its weight behind open source Web server Apache (define). At the time, in 1998, Apache had about 50 percent of the market, according to Koenig, with Microsoft steadily eroding IBM's share. Now, Apache is the dominant Web server, while IBM has moved up the stack with the introduction of its WebSphere line of application servers that run on top of Apache.

In fact, IBM is considered by many in the industry to be the Sun Tzu of using open source in the art of war. In 2001, it created Eclipse, an open source application platform that many saw as a way to short-circuit the popularity of Sun's NetBeans platform. Eclipse, the framework for IBM's Rational software division, was reorganized as an independent non-profit in January 2004. IBM executives didn't return several requests for interviews.

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