Open source, popular as it has been, has hardly killed off proprietary software. While margins and new license revenues have suffered across the enterprise software spectrum, it is the cloud, more than open-source software, that is to blame (or thank, depending on whose stock you own). Yes, open source built the cloud, but it is the cloud that gets all the credit (and cash).
Now, in a perverse twist of cosmic irony, open source risks being devoured by the very cloud to which it gave birth.
A delicate sound of open source thunder
Google, Facebook, and the other dominant web companies depend upon open source. Born in the cloud, the economics of proprietary software are inimical to the scale at which such companies operate.
As Facebook's engineering team noted in a blog, "Facebook is built on open source from top to bottom, and could not exist without it."
Could not exist. This isn't a matter of personal preference, but existential reality.
And it's a reality that non-web companies are increasingly living, as well. As more enterprises have raced for the flexibility and scale of cloud computing, open source has devoured whatever shred of relevance proprietary software had to shape enterprise infrastructure.
As Cloudera co-founder Mike Olson wrote,
"[T]here's been a stunning and irreversible trend in enterprise infrastructure. If you're operating a data center, you're almost certainly using an open source operating system, database, middleware and other plumbing. No dominant platform-level software infrastructure has emerged in the last ten years in closed-source, proprietary form. This is despite huge investment and tremendous efforts by traditional closed-source vendors to hold back the IP tide."
Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst put two and two together and declared that the cloud could not exist without open source, giving open source a rosy future even as the cloud takes off.
But the truth is far murkier.
Another brick in the open source wall
On the one hand, as Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady highlighted, the Facebooks and Googles of the world are happy to release mountains of open source: "The sheer number of companies not in the business of selling software who are releasing their creations as open source has dramatically inflated both the number and quality of available open source solutions."
This has led to an amazing amount of exceptional open-source code that no longer mimics the best of proprietary software, but instead innovates. Think Hadoop, Spark, Cassandra, and more.
The problem, however, is that one of open source's biggest advantages—convenience—is trumped by cloud convenience. As O'Grady continued,
"[F]rom a convenience standpoint, open source does not enjoy the same advantages over its services counterparts that it did over proprietary competitors. Open source is typically less convenient than service-based alternatives, in fact. If it's easier to download and spin up an open source database than talk to a salesperson, it's even easier to download nothing at all and make setup, operation and backup of that database someone else's problem."
If convenience is an increasingly important factor in technology adoption, then, and all of the available evidence suggests that it is, open source's relative disadvantage in this area is a potential problem.
Not a "potential problem" for the enterprises happily embracing cloud-based solutions, but rather for the vendors who hope to profit from selling software. Is this a bad thing?
Wish you were here
There once was a time that we fretted over Red Hat's isolation as the lonely billion-dollar open source company. Who would write open-source software if vendors didn't have a financial incentive to do so?
But as O'Grady illuminated, the cloud companies have plenty of incentives to release code, if for no other reason than it helps them to identify and recruit the world's best engineering talent. If that seems a weak incentive, it shouldn't. The competition for top engineering talent is fierce and only going to continue.
In fact, it's arguably a better incentive than revenue ever was. It's telling that so-called open-source companies remain relatively small, even as open source has become so big. To the extent that these companies need to more easily monetize their open-source creations, they'd do well to follow the lead of Facebook and the web giants and sell services, rather than software masquerading as support services.
That's where the money is: the cloud. And it's where the open-source code increasingly will live, too. This is a trend for open-source advocates to embrace, not shun.
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.