What people are saying about the future of open source

In two years we’re going to see another major open source vendor the size of Red Hat taking on the platform companies like Oracle and SAP in the battle for subscription-based software market share in every segment except security tools and business intelligence.

This is not my prediction but the collected wisdom of those who participated in a survey whose results were released at InfoWorld’s Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) this week in San Francisco. For the most part, they are not the findings that were highlighted by Northbridge Venture Partners, which commissioned the research. Instead, their emphasis was on how a bad economy was good for open source (you do the math), and that the open versus proprietary software spend will 50-50 within the next five years. These were rather foregone conclusions. There was much more, however, that suggested deep unrest in the industry that’s still to come.

In the list of factors that make open source attractive, for example, it’s worth a look at what scraped the bottom. Just above “other” and security was community-provided support, which you might have thought was a real advantage to working with non-proprietary products. So much for the “many eyeballs” theory.

Although respondents suggested Red Hat 2.0 is on the way, meanwhile, respondents do not envision those kinds of companies as commanding much of the overall open source software revenue by 2012. In fact, pure-play vendors like Red Hat came second-last on the list, right before independent software vendors that do their own thing. This suggests, to me at least, that people expect open source vendors to be a sort of farm team for the major software vendors like IBM or Sun, who will scoop them up when the time (and the price) is right.

A lot of surveys include the kinds of questions that seem too obvious to believe, and this one was no exception. “Can a startup software vendor realistically enter the (enterprise) market with a product or service that is NOT open source?” Not surprisingly, 80 per cent said yes, it is possible. That 20 per cent didn’t reflected either a touching belief in the power of open source or a realistic view of enterprise heterogeneity.

The whole point of this survey, obviously, is to gauge how users and IT professionals see open source, and there was at least one bar chart that showed how slowly its image is evolving. Most respondents saw open source as a business model – something that companies use to licence software. Slightly fewer still saw it as a development model – a way applications and platforms are created, rather than sold or consumed. The overwhelming majority saw it as both, as well as a marketing model. I’m not sure what this says about the future, except that if the business model segment continues to grow, the question won’t need to be asked. Open source will simply be considered a standard element of the product and service mix. Which, as a long-term trend, is exactly as it should be.

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