Why Open Source and Linux Are Losing Momentum

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This time of year, I make my rounds with the OEMs and get to chat with a number of executives. Several things have floated to the top, but the one I'd like to chat about right now is the comment that Linux demand and interest in open source in general has dropped off sharply.


I think this is because a lot of FOSS folks saw open source and related initiatives as an end and not a means to an end. The result IT departments wanted and the result FOSS wanted were two different things.


Let's chat about what I think folks wanted, and why open source didn't meet that need, and conclude with why I think the FSF, in particular, is on the wrong track.


This isn't an "OSS is losing/Microsoft is winning" piece. This is more along the lines of "the technology market is sick," and OSS and the FSF have a lot to do with why.


The Beginnings of the Anti-Microsoft Movement


We can call what we often refer to as open source many things, but often the names don't seem to connect with the rhetoric. Interwoven through much of what we write about Linux and open source is the political agenda of being anti-Microsoft. It may not have started out that way, but it sure seems so today. Though, when people at places such as Slashdot (which are normally thought to be hangouts for Microsoft haters) are asked, their responses are very interesting.


Now, if we were to be honest, open source, by name, should advocate access to source code -- it shouldn't be anti-anything. Of course in politics, we aren't very honest with our naming; often organizations trying to fight a consumer initiative and funded by business have names sounding like they actually are consumer organizations. Consumers for Cable Choice, KeepUSF Fair Coalition, Alliance for Public Technology, and so on. At least here in the United States, we are used to creative naming intended to sound friendlier than what the organization is about. Of course calling the FSF "the organization to keep programmers from getting paid" likely wouldn't be as successful, but likely would be more truthful.


But FSF is about stopping Microsoft, and toward the end of the '90s, it had a lot of folks who agreed that Microsoft should be stopped. I was meeting with and surveying the IT shops a lot at the time, and even gave Steve Ballmer annual reports personally to point out that Microsoft was bleeding trust and that, at some point, the market was likely to respond painfully.


But, folks weren't complaining that Microsoft's code wasn't open. They were complaining that Microsoft wasn't being honest with them, was "taxing" them for products they weren't using, and didn't seem to care when they complained. I ran into a lot of CIOs whose marching orders were "find me someone other than Microsoft to do business with."


Eventually, even the hardware OEMs got tired of constantly feeling that no one in Redmond was listening. Open source and Linux became the concept and the product they rallied their efforts around, but the goal was to fix or replace Microsoft (and generally more replace than fix). This friction continues today, and there is substantial frustration among OEMs with regard to how Vista is selling. In addition, unlike last decade, Apple -- the one PC vendor that doesn't use Windows -- is enjoying the strongest margins, best stock market performance, and its CEO is the highest paid, all of which isn't lost on these guys. Note, however, Apple doesn't use Linux and is about as far from open source as you're going to get and still be on this planet.


Microsoft Competitors' Pyrrhic Victory


Competitors such as Sun inflamed this by actually referring to the Microsoft charges as a "tax." While they hurt Microsoft a great deal, often they didn't do themselves much good because most didn't have, and couldn't articulate, a better alternative. In some cases, they even got Microsoft to give them money in exchange for not calling the company names. But other than writing those checks, Microsoft, which was run largely by engineers (read: those who are really clueless when it comes to politics and marketing) was largely ineffective to counter either the real or imagined wrongs.


Increasingly, open source advocates would tell stories of past Microsoft wrongs that, though widely believed, had been generally disproved in the Justice Department action against Microsoft, an action that would have come out a lot better had Microsoft not been caught cheating in court several times.


But, prior to the big post-OSS ramp in the early 2000s, companies remained willing to pay for the technology they used, and seemed to realize they depended on similar rules for their own company's income. They didn't really want to go into the software business or take over even more responsibility for their own products, nor did they actually want to devalue the software industry and the people in it by stripping out the profits.


But this last outcome was often what they got, and what they wanted -- to have people be honest with them -- they often didn't get. Not from anybody.


FOSS Impact


So, at the beginning of the cycle, we had one big software company run by the richest man in the world who was also a software engineer who built his own company. Software engineers were paid very well in general, and Microsoft was generating more millionaires than any other company. The software market was very lucrative, as was the hardware market -- both of which enjoyed relatively strong margins. UNIX was in decline and that hurt sales for those vendors, but the related software skills were still valuable.


Nearly 10 years of "Kill Microsoft" later and the richest guy in the world is a Mexican businessman; the most powerful technology company, Google, gets its software for free and builds its own hardware; and it doesn't talk to IT, yet may at some point actually dictate what we use, if trends continue. Google doesn't share either. People believed, but often were wrong, that Microsoft stole technology from others; Google uses the GPL to do the same thing globally, legally, and is proud of it. And it should be -- it gamed OSS.


(As a side note: I often wonder if anyone actually has read the published history of Microsoft. For instance, how many know the Microsoft president was at IBM until the early '90s? Where do you think a lot of the company's practices originated?)


Today there are a lot of software companies just above break-even and largely living off low-margin services revenues. Kids don't seem to want to go into the software business. And much of the activity is to reduce costs and ship jobs out to India. The majority -- I'm guessing 70 percent now -- of the software technicians and engineers I was speaking to at the beginning of the cycle have left the market entirely as a result of layoffs connected to outsourcing or downsizing and now, surprise, we have a shortage.


FSF may have helped hurt Microsoft. However, from my view, it helped devastate the software and hardware landscape even more. Granted this wasn't its goal, but it does appear to be the outcome, and one it has nothing to counter. For instance, what has it done to increase software value, programmer salaries or software company profitability? GPL 3.0 goes the other direction. When Richard Stallman flipped off Bill Gates (in effigy) at Stanford a few months ago, you have to wonder was he really flipping off Bill or every person who made a good salary on software? The right answer is probably both.


(For a guy who thinks people should work for free to flip off a guy who is giving his wealth to solve world inequity is kind of ironic; the fact Microsoft likely contributed more to solve this problem than Bill can and that Bill's efforts likely will fail is even more ironic).

I think I could argue, as much as folks didn't like Microsoft, they didn't like being underpaid and unemployed more. This isn't to say Microsoft wasn't, and isn't, a problem; only that what FSF and related initiatives did was the equivalent of a doctor treating you for a severe headache by cutting off your legs to take your mind of the pain and get control of your wallet.


So Why Is It that Open Source and Linux Appear to Be in Decline?


Honestly, part of this likely is the realization that the OEMs really can't help much with open source. The Google model is the right one, and that suggests to do open source and Linux right, you need to internalize much of the effort and, in this case, the OEMs aren't much help. But I also think Microsoft has become less of a threat.

Microsoft doesn't appear invincible anymore. Bill Gates is off trying to save the world (you have to think that alone pisses Richard Stallman off a lot) and not running the company. Folks were able to say no to both Vista and renewing their Enterprise Agreements without a demon showing up to drag them off to hell. In effect, Microsoft is looking more and more like just another big troubled vendor, and it's kind of hard to get excited about "Killing Microsoft" anymore. Particularly given Microsoft seems to be doing more of late to interoperate and make things better than FSF is.

In short, the fire behind all this is running out, and given the financial conditions of the market, folks are focusing more on keeping the lights on which, I also think, goes a long way toward explaining why so many are signing deals with Microsoft right now. People just don't want to be broke or unemployed and they see these deals as a possible way to avoid what otherwise seemed unavoidable.

Re-Establishing Trust, Saving Linux, and Open Source

I do not understand dealing with a vendor you don't trust. As I see it, you either find a way to trust the vendor again or you get another vendor. Regardless of what some religions say, you weren't put on this earth to suffer through software, nor were you hired to go to war with one of your vendors.


I think "open source" needs to shift and become more about open source, and maybe protecting and increasing the incomes of the folks that support this effort. Free is supposed to be about "freedom," not working for free, which is great for those who made a bundle out of the dot-com years, but not as great for those of us without trust funds.


And for Richard Stallman and FSF, maybe flipping Bill Gates off less and actually working to change the laws surrounding software intellectual property rather than creating another license for a market that everyone recognizes has too many of the damned things would be a path more in line with true freedom and less in line with personal agendas. Linus Torvalds, who works for a living, appears to agree, calling FSF "hypocrites."


For all of us, I think it is well past time we started to go back and look at products and vendors on their merits and not treat them like rock stars or demons incarnate. It's time we went back to looking at the technology market like a business where the vendors make reasonable profit, are held to the promises they make, and trust is backed up by action on both sides.


And I think that is exactly what we are seeing happen.