Opening up about open source

Tim Bray is director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems, but is perhaps best known as a co-inventor of XML. He also has launched one of the first public Web search engines, Open Text Index, and founded Antarctica Systems, specializing in visualization-based business analytics. Paul Krill spoke with Bray at the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco last month about topics ranging from the open source business case to, of course, XML.

How do you leverage open source and be profitable with it?

Well, the notion is that the different kinds of business models you have around software are not specifically a function of whether it’s open source or closed source. I think even if you wanted to do traditional capital cost software licensing, the kind of thing that Oracle still makes a living on, there’s no reason in principle you couldn’t do that and still have the product [be] open source and anybody could download it and compile themselves. [We did an announcement about] Project Red October. All the software products are freely downloadable and freely usable, but unless you license them, whether that be by capital cost or subscription, you get no indemnity, no support, no nothing. I don’t actually see any tension between open source and making money. Open source is a good characteristic for software in general to have. It seems like we’re all beginning to agree, and our plans for making money from software do include open source by and large.

I had somebody else at another company tell me the other day that open source brings down revenues for everybody. Would you agree with that?

Well, we don’t know yet. Right now, we’ve got this completely ad hoc hodgepodge of business models out there. Clearly, Microsoft makes the most money of anybody and they’re not open source at all. But then again, they’ve got a monopoly to help them. So the question of how you would maximize the revenue for the competitive marketplace is one I don’t think we know the answer to yet. We’re betting that closed source is sufficiently unnatural in the long haul, and that open source is the way it’s going to end up.

At what point do you say, ‘Our revenues are so much less now that we’re not getting licensing, that we’re going to have to cut your salary in half.’ I just wonder where does this all end?

Well I just don’t buy that picture. If you look at the typical subscription arrangements, such as the ones that our friends over at Red Hat are being quite successful with, the amount of money you end up paying, it may not end up being that dramatically less. It’s just that instead of it being as a capital cost, it’s as a monthly subscription kind of basis.

I don’t have the figures in front of me, but haven’t Red Hat’s revenues not been all that fabulous? They’re nothing compared to Sun or Microsoft or anybody like that.

Well, yes, except we’re not a pure software company, and they are. And in terms of the number of deployed seats they have, they have orders of magnitude less than Microsoft. I think actually it’s going to be a hard apples-to-apples comparison to make.

Borland decided to sell off not only its Java tools but its Microsoft tools. What do you see there? Is that open source or commoditization of tools?

I think that the conclusion is there’s no money to be made selling IDEs, that’s all.

And why isn’t there?

If you’re in the Microsoft space, you’re locked into [Visual Studio .NET], which is actually an excellent product. On open source in the Java world, there’s NetBeans and Eclipse, both of which are excellent; both of which are free. And in the LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL Perl/Python/PHP) world — you know, dynamic language, that world — there isn’t much at the moment. But what comes along will doubtless be open source. That’s now the cultural expectation.

Has XML exceeded your expectations?

There was this earlier technology called SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language), which had been used in big, big publishing applications, but it was too big and too complicated. And so the population of people in the world who actually knew SGML and understood the Web was maybe 12 people. So that was the 12 people that ended up on the working group, and I co-edited the specs. I’m a co-editor of XML 1.0. And we basically took SGML, threw away the 90 per cent that nobody ever used, made it a little bit more Web-friendly, addressed things with URLs, and that was XML. Has it exceeded our expectations? Oh, my goodness, yes. We thought we were building something that would enable somewhat more efficient publishing of Web pages to multiple devices and so on, and the explosion of creativity and energy around XML has wildly exceeded anything we could have possibly dreamed.

I was at a conference a few weeks ago where, basically, the verdict on the issue of Web services was that it was just so mired in confusion right now, with these standards and specifications that people don’t know where to start.

I have a lot of sympathy with that viewpoint. The core big-picture vendors will interoperate with each other. Does that change the world? I tend to be a skeptic. is doing tens of millions of Web services transactions a day and making money, and generally speaking, ignoring all that WS-* stuff. They are just doing straightforward XML over HTTP. And I think that that simple model, what we call the REST (Representational State Transfer) model, has a lot of legs and is going to deliver a lot of value.

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