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Monday, June 20, 2005

Guns, Germs, and Open Source: Analysis of the Software Business

An excellent attempt to use Jared Diamond’s analysis to the question of which type of software will prevail: open source or commercial software, has been made by Dan Woods. The book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” refers to the proximate causes of the domination. Excerpts with edits & comments from the article:
The book is a detailed analysis of why certain societies developed “Guns, Germs, and Steel” that enabled them to prevail, while others didn’t. As we look back on the landscape of software twenty or thirty years from now, which type of software will cross the ocean to take over the other? Will open source be the conquering force? Or will commercial software contain the growth of open source to small islands? Or will the map of the software landscape look like a complicated mosaic with each type of software owning certain territory?
Dan Woods concludes that the reality of the nature of open source and the nature of enterprise software companies clearly show that commercial software is farmer-powered( in Jared’s lingo) and has many strengths that open source lacks. Open source has mostly provided general purpose infrastructure of interest to developers, such as the ability to create a solution for businesses not developers and to combine many solutions to solve the specific needs of an industry. This happens through the product management/product marketing process which looks not to scratch an itch of the person creating the software but to solve the needs of someone else, a potential customer. Commercial companies also are able to create ecosystems of expertise, documentation, and other forms of productization that open source projects do not offer most of the time. Most of the time open source provides infrastructure that a developer wanted to build. Where is the viable replacement for MS Exchange? Commercial software provides solutions to businesses that solve problems that are of little interest to most developers. Open source is contained by the range of passion that developers have for creating a solution. This range of passion is not as universal as some open source advocates would like to think. Developers are not excited about creating advanced replenishment algorithms for the consumer products industry. They are not going to get peer recognition about writing interface drivers for RFID controllers and then linking them to all of the different warehouse management systems in use.

Large areas of infrastructure will be conquered by open source, but there will be huge area of applications that the farmer powered commercial companies will maintain. Neither side will conquer and many pitched battles will be fought. Byron Sebastian’s arguments about development becoming cheaper & therefore opensource will raise faster is not right - this may apply to both commercial software and open source. Perhaps they mean that commercial software will be subject to more competition, not that commercial software will cease to exist. The commercial software business can learn lessons that open source teaches about software development without having to change the fundamental business model.

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