Threat or promise

Threat or promise

Vendors no longer see open source code as a threat, but they need to carefully think through its implications for the value of their offerings.

Recent discussions with enterprise software providers indicate that many view open source software as just another piece of business. This is a big change from 2007, when most were struggling to understand the demand for open source software, its role within their portfolios and the most effective business models for profiting from it. But in the past 12 to 18 months, many software vendors have moved from fear to aggression, pursuing open source development firm acquisitions, incorporating this sort of code into offerings throughout their portfolios and looking for (or planning) open source products. This rapid turnaround may not be good news, as moving too quickly from uncertainty to total acceptance may not turn out happily for many vendors and their customers. A too-aggressive adoption and deployment of any technology leads to a lack of co-ordination across products and partners, incomplete offerings and a lack of adequate support.

And at the same time, a surprising number of these vendors will say they feel they have "this open source thing under control". Some take the position that open source is "just another code source" that is being integrated into their development operations, but cannot explain the strategies and management resources dedicated to their co-ordination and management of open source development and licensing.

So there may be danger in the new found confidence regarding open source among traditional software vendors. There is a sense of something close to complacency - as if a threat has been averted simply by its absorption into existing operations and offerings. The reality is that, despite decades of open source development, we are really still in its early stages when it comes to commercial software. Reactive tactics, no matter how substantial, should not be considered as business and development strategies or management.

From insecure to reliable

Most established software vendors originally saw open source as a threat. They foresaw open source-based alternative offerings to their established products, or were concerned that undocumented open source code would somehow find its way into their own code and cause security or compatibility problems.

Both of these things have happened, but the majority of vendors have instead found that open source offers competitive advantages, and have embraced the open source phenomenon. Most have seen how open source can provide new or expanded channels of tested and reliable leading-edge software development that can add significant capability at much lower costs and in less time.

Software vendors have not only enthusiastically embraced open source, but swiftly made it a key aspect of many development and marketing schemes. We see not only more open source in traditional software portfolios and offerings, but more of it in key, critical places.

At the same time, some vendors are investing heavily in open source without understanding its roles and implications. Their open source-oriented business strategies seem reminiscent of the investments made in dotcom and online companies in 1999, by people who lacked any knowledge of what the companies actually did - or what these investments would cost.

Any one of the changes enabled and driven by the use of open source in commercial software is a fundamental change to how a vendor does business. Taken together, they require strategic investment and management well beyond simple absorption of code into existing or new offerings.

A too-aggressive adoption and deployment of open source engenders a lack of co-ordination and management across products and partners. This in turn leads to incomplete offerings, and a lack of adequate support - all of which lead to unhappy customers and partners.

As with any important (or increasingly critical) technology, resources need to be dedicated to co-ordination and management of open source development - and licensing.

Better understanding of customer/user interest in open source is vital. Vendors today tend to embrace open source as a means to appeal to more users while reducing some development costs and improving some levels of standardisation. There is a sense among vendors that "users want open source; let's give it to them". In reality, users want the value promised or implied by open source - lower costs, vendor independence and the ability to "play" with the source code. These attributes do not have to be the sole province of open source.

But vendors who believe they "have this open source thing under control" are the least likely to be able to deliver such value to their customers. To deliver value, vendors will still need to carry out continual reshaping and revision of offerings and of the business itself.

Chris Morris Chris Morris is director of services, IDC Asia/Pacific. Email comments to

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Tags open sourcevendor consolidation

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