Has open-source lost its halo?

Observers argue that open source has become a cloak used by IT vendors to disguise ruthless and self-serving behaviour

Is open-source still a grassroots social movement made up of idealistic underdogs trying to revolutionize an amoral industry? Or has it become a cloak used by IT vendors large and small to disguise ruthless and self-serving behaviour?

Some observers argue it's the latter. Despite occasional protests from oldtimers -- the heated backlash against the Microsoft-Novell detente, for example -- open-source has become so co-opted by mainstream IT, so transformed by "accidental open-sourcers" simply looking for a better business model, that it's lost its cherished moral edge.

"Open-source has become a free pass for all sorts of competitive actions that would once have been -- at a minimum -- roundly criticized," wrote Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata in an online piece last month.

Haff cites IBM's release of its VisualAge software development tools to the open-source Eclipse Foundation in 2001, a move he argues has dealt near-fatal blows to commercial Java Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) such as Borland's Jbuilder and Symantec's Cafe.

IBM also released its lightweight Cloudscape database in 2004 to the open-source Apache Foundation, where it is now known as Derby. Like Eclipse, Derby helps draw companies to Java, where IBM makes a tidy sum -- even more than Sun Microsystems -- hawking middleware and related tools, Haff said.

But open-sourcing Cloudscape also hurt sales at companies such as Sybase, which made mobile databases the centerpiece of its "unwired enterprise" strategy, as well as open-source vendors like SleepyCat Software (now owned by Oracle Corp.) and MySQL, Haff said.

"Some collateral damage to competitors in the process is not something that IBM likely regrets," Haff wrote.

Sybase's chief marketing officer, Raj Nathan, insists the company is doing fine and that its offering remains "superior to any of our competitor's offerings, including Cloudscape."

But saddled with disappointing growth in its mobile and embedded database business, Sybase is turning its attention to other areas, such as data integration, to boost revenue growth.

Do no wrong, do no right

Another example? Take Hewlett-Packard's backing of the open-source Lustre shared file system. Lustre helps HP in the high-performance computing arena, while hurting storage competitors like Panasas as well as current HP partners such as PolyServe, says Haff.

Yet few have taken notice of what might be seen as ruthless or even treacherous action because of the positive reputation HP enjoys as a champion -- second only to IBM -- of open-source.

"There's a lot of self-delusion," Haff said in an interview. "People need to believe that there are 'good' companies and 'bad' companies. And they get shocked when a 'good' company does something that is in its ... self-interest."

By contrast, 'bad' companies like Microsoft can't catch a break, argues Haff. For instance, if in the late 1990s Microsoft, then in the midst of the Department of Justice's anti-trust case, had decided to release its Visual Studio 97 development tools for free, "What do you think the general reaction would have been? Applause for Microsoft's generosity? Or widespread condemnation for using its market power to make such a transparently anti-competitive attack on other makers of development tools?"

"Eclipse is a bulldozer just as much as much as Microsoft is," agrees another analyst, James Governor of Redmonk, though he views the situation with more equanimity. "One person's predatory is another person's wonderful gift."

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