The New Open Source Legacy

The end of the year is obviously the time for the “look back,” and although we weren’t planning any grand pronouncements that 2007 was the year of social computing or anything like that (more in a moment), perhaps it’s fitting that we stumbled across an announcement from Red Hat of a changing of the guard.

(For the record, 2007 was not the year of social computing for us. But in 2008 it might be, as you start seeing more enterprise apps like Salesforce to Salesforce absorbing social computing techniques.)

Opening his farewell Red Hat blog with a quote from Jack Kerouac stating that, “The only people for me are the mad ones,” outgoing CEO and president Matthew Szulik painted the kind of wild west picture of open source that has become something of a stereotype.

“And over the phone, in the middle of my sales pitch, corporate types at Dell, IBM and HP and others would hear the constant banging of soda cans dropping in the soda machine and would ask if there were fights going on outside my office. So, after a while, I told the prospective investors that YES there were fights going on. And yes, these fights happened frequently. Its how people at Red Hat settled technical issues likes software bugs and features in new releases.”

In all fairness, flying soda cans at Red Hat were hardly unique to open source, as any veteran of knock-down debates in Bill Gates’ office would attest.

But the passing of the baton at Red Hat is more symbolic in another way: while the origins of open source were characterized by evangelist Eric S. Raymond as a thriving, chaotic bazaar, in actuality, today open source has spawned a variety of technology development and go-to-market models.

Consequently, while you have the idealism and the bug patching efficiency of the world’s biggest virtual software R&D lab, open source for some providers has become big business. Just ask Red Hat shareholders, after the company reported Q3 earnings exceeding $20 million, up roughly 40% over a year ago. Or, from a go-to-market standpoint, the fact that Red Hat has morphed with the JBoss acquisition into a platform company that, not only offers an OS and middle tier, but now engages in practices of offering certified bundles that would look familiar to any veteran IBM, Sun, or Oracle customer.

In other words, being open source doesn’t mean that some bundles won’t be more equal than others. Yes, You can run the Linux ports of rival J2EE platforms on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, while JBoss continues to run on Windows (and has an interoperability agreement with Microsoft to juice performance), but Red Hat has become another commercial platform company, just like anyone else in the open source or proprietary worlds.

There’s nothing wrong with this unless you’re an open source idealist who is committed to a democratic ideal where all software is free and the playing field for interoperability is completely level. In the real world, enterprise customers want products that they know will work.