When faced with these two options, a developer who chooses route 1 with a traditional software development approach will actually find himself eclipsed by a developer who chooses option 2, even if the ambitions of the latter project are lower. Granted, only a small percentage of the user base will ever contribute anything, but this thriving ecosystem of users and contributors is what will make a software project viable over time. Thus, in a system where software prices approach zero, open source becomes a necessity in a competitive market. (I plan to discuss the debate on leveraging this model for profit in a follow-up article.)
Without prices that approach zero, there is simply no room for viable open source options. To test this, think of most vertical software markets. These are the homes of specialized software tools of which only a few users are intimately familiar. Without a broad base of users and a deep collective knowledge base, there is considerably less downward price pressure. Consequently, there is simply no incentive to release open source software in those markets.
When taking stock of vertical software markets, I notice a decided lack of open source alternatives to commercial software. One could test assertions made in previous paragraphs by looking at vertical markets that have recently broadened in scope following an increase in the sheer number of inhabitants in that market. If the above assertions are true, there should be an emerging open source ecosystem in that market, albeit less mature and feature-complete than competing commercial products.
I have shown how the internet has driven software prices into the dirt, created an environment conducive to open source collaboration, and provided the infrastructure for that collaboration to actually take place. I have also shown how cheap commodity software markets are necessary for open source development and how open source is not viable in less mature software markets without the necessary economy of scale. When viewing open source development from this perspective, some things become clear that perhaps were not before.
The continuing expansion of the internet is necessary for continued open source proliferation.
In order for more projects to grow in a vibrant open source ecosystem, there needs to be a fresh supply of new users and developers. The economies of scale that spawned open source development need to keep expanding, or else there is a risk of stagnation.
Given current trends, open source will continue to expand in scope, prevailing in more markets.
All signs point to an expanding internet for the foreseeable future. This means that the trends that result in cheap software commodities should maintain their steady pace. As such, the open source footprint should continue to expand.
There is no open source community.
Looking at open source from an economic perspective, it becomes clear that Linux or its equivalent was bound to happen eventually, regardless of whether Linus decided to release a kernel in 1991. The same applies for Apache and any other project. Both of these are the natural result of massive price drops in their respective markets. The view that there is a core group of altruistic companies and true believers driving open source forward is simply false. The view that open source participants are idealistic Davids fighting against software Goliaths is also false. In fact, surveys of open source participants tend to bear this out.
Open source is neither good nor bad.
Open source is not a religion. It is not an ideology. It can be used for both good and bad. It does not inhabit the higher moral ground, nor is it a more ethical way to conduct business. It just is, and it will continue to grow and expand.
In the next article in this series, I will show the other side of the equation: the customer pull on open source. I'll also demonstrate how and when a software vendor can leverage open source economies of scale in its favor, why TCO is irrelevant, and why there is little to fear from legal battles.
John Mark Walker has burrowed deep inside the bat cave, working feverishly to make sure that LinuxWorld learns how to party like it's 1999.
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