Subject: Open source successes (Was: Re: OT-ness and a new list? (Was: Opportunity lost?...))
From: Ian Lance Taylor <ian@airs.com>
Date: 16 May 2001 14:39:48 -0700

"Tim O'Reilly" <tim@oreilly.com> writes:

> To me, Eric's key business model point has always been that more
> software is built for use than for sale.  All of the most successful
> businesses in the open source realm are *users* of open source.  The
> entire ISP industry is based on selling access to services (email, web,
> domain name services) that are based on open source.  Not to mention
> businesses like Yahoo! that build their higher level services on an open
> software platform.
> 
> I find myself completely baffled by the failure of the hardcore open
> source community (or really the free software community, which focuses
> so much on Linux) to acknowledge and own its real business successes,
> while endlessly focusing on the markets (the windows desktop) where open
> source not only has a steep uphill climb but also a less compelling
> business model.  We continually play into Microsoft's hands by treating
> their business model as the given.  All the while, they have been
> working to come up with a proprietary alternative to the internet
> technologies that *have* been the basis of open source business models
> so they can knock them out.

I can understand your frustration, but I can see several reasons why
the free software community focuses on the desktop:

1) Every one of uses a desktop.  Very few of us sell access to
   services on the Internet.
2) Despite the spread of the Internet, the generally acknowledged big
   software success story of the last decade is Microsoft, and they
   succeeded on the desktop.
3) When we try to explain free software systems to non-techies, they
   ask us to show them something.  So we show them a Linux or *BSD
   system.
4) As you said, the core Internet is already based on free software.
   There aren't new exciting programs to write, just improvements on
   existing ones.  If you're going to improve an existing program, why
   not tackle a proprietary one rather than one which is already free?
   And once you've done that, you naturally talk about what you're
   working on.

You're right in that if free software were a company, or even a
unitary organization, this would be terrible marketing/communications.
But there isn't anybody out there writing free software press releases
for the business world, putting a free software spin on events,
sending free software speakers to conferences.  If there were such
people, who would pay them?  There are a lot of individual efforts,
including things like the Open Source Convention, but there is not
unified marcomm message such as there is from Microsoft or any other
large company.

> It's a complete reversal of what should have happened.  Now, once again,
> the open source community is playing catch up (at least in public
> perception, because as usual there are lots of interesting, powerful,
> grassroots projects doing real work in this area), because Microsoft has
> articulated a vision of the future we were in fact building towards,
> while we were busy reinforcing the view that they were the ones to beat.

As you say, there are people in the free software community have
already articulated the future which Microsoft is moving toward.  But
those people have no bully pulpit.  Microsoft can get vastly better
press from a cloud of vapour than any of us, even you, can get from a
clearly articulated vision.

But I think this is all OK.  Microsoft is winning the perception
battle, but I think free software may win the battle on the ground.
And in the long run the ground is what matters.  Since free software
is not a business, it doesn't have to have a short run perspective.
Since it is not a unitary organization, it can easily and naturally
try many different approaches.  Microsoft is driven from the top by
people focused on business purposes, so their technology does not
approach perfection.  Free software does.

I'm not saying that the perception mismatch between free software and
proprietary software is a good thing.  I'm saying that I don't find it
surprising, and that I don't think it is an extremely serious problem.

Ian