Will All Software Go Open Source?

Expert panel reveals why software patents are like smoking
PALO ALTO, CALIF. -- When open source developers gather on a panel to discuss whether "all software will go open source," you can expect the sentiment to tip that way, only with lots of arguments.

A larger question under scrutiny at the AlwaysOn Innovation Summit on the Stanford University campus here was whether it might someday become the dominant paradigm for software development.

"There is no technical argument for keeping code closed. It will never deteriorate being open," said Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL. "Companies have to choose how to make money and today that includes choosing proprietary elements. Maybe five or ten years from now we'll figure out how to make money and [still] keep all the lines of code open."

Even this panel agreed that, while they don't see open source (define) as ready to take over the software industry, its growth will continue and buttress the success of commercial software.

They also agreed that however broad the interest in open source development, plenty of gaps exist, and some for good reason.

"There are certain technologies that for whatever reason open source hasn't taken hold," said Mark Spencer, founder and president of Digium. He listed speech recognition and text-to-speech software as examples. Another panelist mentioned software drivers and 3D graphics cards, which the hardware companies tend to keep proprietary.

"My favorite example is TurboTax," said Bruce Perens, vice president of policy at SourceLabs and author of the Open Source Definition. Because of the changing nature of the tax code, TurboTax requires regular, time-sensitive updates that a commercial publisher is best equipped to provide.

Perens also noted the numerous legal implications of what TurboTax does that leaves the publisher open to enormous legal liability should the program perform incorrectly. Few, if any, open source startups would want those kinds of headaches.

Then came talk of patent lawsuits in the context of so-called patent trolls. The term refers to companies that register patents for technologies and processes, essentially wait for other companies to bring products to market that use those processes, then demand licensing revenue from those companies.

Still, Ron Hovsepian, CEO of Novell, said patents are an important protection for companies to build intellectual property assets. Novell uses both open source and commercial proprietary code in its products.

It's about how you translate that IP in your products which is a very different discussion," said Hovsepian. "There's an implication that everyone will do bad things with patents."

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