I read two stories about companies adopting Open Source this week which give some interesting food for thought when juxtaposed.
The first is a blog post on C|Net from Matt Asay titled Ballmer: We'll look at open source, but we won't touch where he writes
Ballmer lacks the imagination to conceive of a world where Microsoft could open-source code and still make a lot of money (He's apparently not heard of "Google."):
No. 1, are our products likely to be open-sourced? No. We do provide our source code in special situations, but open source also implies free, free is inconsistent with paying for lunches at the partner conference. (Applause.)
But at least he's willing to work with those who do grok that the future of software business (meaning: money) is open source:
The second is an article on InfoWorld by Paul Krill entitled Sun lays off approximately 1,000 employees which contains the following excerpts
Following through on a restructuring plan announced in May, Sun on Thursday laid off approximately 1,000 employees in the United States and Canada. All told, the company plans to reduce its workforce by approximately 1,500 to 2,500 employees worldwide. Additional reductions will occur in other regions including EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa), Asia-Pacific, and Latin America. Reducing the number of employees by 2,500 would constitute a loss of about 7 percent of the company's employees.
He also addressed the question of whether Sun should abandon its new strategy of giving away its software. Sun will not stop giving it away, according to Schwartz, citing a priority in developer adoption.
When it comes to the financial benefits of Open Source, you need to look at two perspectives. The perspective of the software vendor (the producer) and the perspective of the software customer (the consumer). A key benefit of Open Source/Free Software to software consumers is that it tends to drive the price of the software to zero. On the other hand, although software producers like Sun Microsystems spend money to produce the software they cannot directly recoup that investment by charging for the software. Thus if you are a consumer of software, it is clear why Open Source is great for your bottom line. On the flip side, it isn't so clear if your primary business is producing software.
Matt Asay's usage of Google as an example of a company "making money" from Open Source is a prime example of this schism in perspectives. Google's primary business is selling advertising. Like every other media business, they gather an audience by using their products as bait and then sell that audience to advertisers. Every piece of software not directly related to the business of selling ads is tangential to Google's business. The only other software that is important to Google's business is the software that gives them a differentiated offering when it comes to gathering that audience. Both classes of software are proprietary to Google and always will be.
This is why you'll never find a Subversion source repository on http://code.google.com with the source code behind Google's AdSense or Adwords products or the current algorithms that power their search engine. Instead you will find Google supporting and releasing lots of Open Source software that is tangential its core business while keeping the software that actually makes them money proprietary.
This means that in truth Google makes money from proprietary software. However since it doesn't distribute its proprietary software to end users, there isn't anyone complaining about this fact.
Unlike Google, Sun Microsystems doesn't really seem to know how they plan to make money. There is a lot of data out there that shows that the Sun Microsystems' model of scaling services is dying. Recently, Kai Fu Lee of Google argued that scaling out on commodity hardware is 33 times more efficient than using expensive hardware. This jibes with the sentiments of people who work on cloud services at Microsoft and Amazon that I've talked to when comparing the use of lots of "commodity" servers versus more expensive "big iron" server systems. This means Sun's hardware business is being squeezed because it is betting against industry experience. Giving away their software does not fix this problem, it makes it worse by cutting of a revenue stream as their core business is turning into a dinosaur before their eyes.
The bottom line is that giving something away that costs you money to produce only makes sense as part of a strategy that makes you even more money than selling what you gave away (e.g. free T-shirts with corporate logos). Google gets that. It seems Sun Microsystems does not. Neither does Matt Asay.
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