Market Update: Smoothstone Aims for the Enterprise

Rob Enderle

I stopped following SCO closely several years ago, but it clearly had an impact on the software market -- just not the one that I think it intended. With last week's ruling, which appears to make Novell, not SCO, the owner of UNIX (which by default makes it legally part of Linux, given the GPL), SCO effectively ceased being very important.

 

But what did it accomplish? A lot, but not at all what it intended. (By the way, I'm not particularly worried that Microsoft will now step in and pick up the fight; it simply is not on that path anymore.)

 

Vetting Open Source

 

Prior to SCO, open source and Linux were still something that, even in the software community, a minority of largely UNIX people spoke about. The related code was being used increasingly, but non-UNIX folks really didn't focus much on the drama surrounding it.

 

However, the threats of violence against SCO, the massive denial-of-service attacks -- even against those who confirmed the attacks -- got a lot of folks looking at open source who otherwise probably wouldn't.


 

Nastiness that too often had been common in UNIX communities (even BSD was known in the early days to cross over into threats of violence) suddenly was placed on the world stage. Major publications such as Forbes put resources into watching the drama. This was soap opera big time, and I still think we are fortunate that no one was hurt or killed.

 

But I think it burned much of the behavior out, and major Linux players moved to stop it. Sure, we have instances from time to time where nut jobs drop into a forum and threaten someone with things like rape, but these are the exception and the response is more consistently a call for a code of behavior rather than to respond in kind.

 

While the birthing was painful -- very painful for some of us -- the result has been a more moderate and mature open source community where discussion is increasingly measured and differing views allowed.

 

Litigation Lessons

 

SCO also serves as a good lesson in how not to litigate. Early on, BayStar Capital, one of SCO's largest initial investors, recommended SCO focus on the litigation and put such experts in control of the company. Had that happened, SCO likely would have contained its actions, fought fewer things in the media and maybe even won. It might have decided to exit the process earlier as well, saving everyone a lot of money and time.

 

But SCO made three critical mistakes. First, the litigators were not litigation experts, and that likely kept them from seeing critical pieces of information they needed to know (such as the internal memo indicating that much of the copied code was in the public domain). Second, it put the legal team on a flat fee, which typically shifts expensive (read "highly qualified") legal resources to more lucrative clients. And third, it let the entire thing become personal, which led to some really foolish behavior and substantially lowered its ability to win the cases -- and there were way too many cases.

 

Had its lawyers known all the facts about ownership of the code -- both the internal determination that it was in the public domain and the cloud of incomplete transfer from Novell -- at the beginning, the advice would have been not to proceed. The hill was too steep and the resources inadequate, and that got far worse once BayStar exited.

 

The Changing Face of Open Source

 

I didn't like open source early in the decade because I connected the related behavior to the early days of client/server. In the early days of both, no matter what the question was, open source or client/server was the answer. A lot of people lost their jobs in the '80s and early '90s as a result of that failed thinking, and I believe even more lost their jobs due to similar thinking surrounding open source.

 

Now I see most people viewing open source (we really don't talk about client/server that much anymore, because everything kind of is client/server) as a means to an end. They evaluate solutions to a problem and take open source if that's the best option. The focus, on both sides, increasingly is on interoperability. Torvalds appears to have called off the war on Microsoft and Microsoft is increasingly active with open source.

 

As we go into next decade, much like it was with client/server, I doubt we'll even talk about open source that much. It will be everywhere, but for most people, who can't code anyway, the result will simply be better products.

 

Wrapping Up

 

Users don't really care whether they can view source code or not. And it is far too easy for industry players to focus on plumbing issues, such as client/server and open source, and forget that the real goal is ecstatic customers.

 

Google and Apple don't involve themselves much in public plumbing discussions. Both seem laser-focused on creating great products, generally using open source. (I still think it likely the iPhone is in violation of the GPL given Linux, not BSD, is where the cell phone IP is.) And both have generated tons of revenue and massive amounts of stockholder value as a result.

 

In the end, I think the best lesson here is that, as long as you focus on your customers' current and future needs, you'll likely be successful. If you don't -- and SCO's litigation certainly wasn't focused on its customers -- then you probably won't like the outcome.

 

So I actually think SCO was beneficial overall. It forced open source to mature, and that allows us to discuss sensitive issues without fear of personal or physical attack and that, my friends, makes this a much better software world to live in.



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