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COMPUTING

At what point does the open source movement declare victory?

May 25, 1999
Web posted at: 12:27 p.m. EDT (1627 GMT)

by Kane Scarlett

From...
LinuxWorld
linux

 ALSO:

  

(IDG) -- From outside the auditorium, the chances of getting in to hear Red Hat CEO Bob Young didn't look promising. The line of people stretched from the arena doors on one side of the Raleigh Convention Center, winding through the temporary walls, to the registration area on the other side.

But in this case, appearances were deceiving. Once the doors opened, the line moved swiftly. It didn't take long for the 500 to 600 people to find seats, filling almost a quarter of the gym-like arena. The small turnout seemed to portend a boring address.

Appearances were deceptive once more. Linux International's Jon "Maddog" Hall introduced Young with a story from the early days of Red Hat -- when Young had taken the entire company to a tradeshow at the Jacob Javits Center in NYC. At the end of a long, hard day of booth duty, Young pulled a roll of bills from his pocket and peeled off a $20 for each person in the booth, telling them to have a night out on the town. Given that they were in New York, the cash was gone before they made it to the corner. (Young noted in his address that the company had blown its entire budget just getting to the show. Had they not sold CDs that day, he said, he wouldn't have had the $20s to hand out.)
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Hall closed his short introduction by crediting Young with making the GPL feasible -- by making Red Hat Linux more FTP-able, thereby adding a mass-oriented delivery mechanism.

The first words of Young's address -- "The revolution is over, and the revolutionaries won" -- were to correct Hall's praise. He said, "The idea of making Red Hat Linux more FTP-able was not only my idea." He called knowledge-sharing one of the best attributes of the open source model, adding that another great benefit is that developers can "share the 99 percent perspiration with the rest of the [open source] community."

In describing the open source movement, Young declared, "It's a much bigger movement than just the Linux kernel." He then branched into his favorite analogy, saying, "There is an element in open source that looks like the automotive industry." He compared the Linux kernel to an engine, with compilers, GUIs, mail, and connectivity products making up the rest of the vehicle. He also noted that, as with the automobile industry, users learn to trust a single vendor to combine the parts to give them something they can use.

"The proprietary, binary-only market is not a free market at all," Young continued, reaching for his famous "car-with-hood-welded-shut" analogy. He added that after you select a product, you're stuck with that manufacturer for any problems that might arise. He added that it's unlikely that an individual user will ever see a needed feature if that user is the only one to need it.

Young noted that individuals stuck with a proprietary technology are also stuck with the manufacturer of that technology for maintenance -- and he invoked what he called the Lazy Programmer Theory: "The bulk of cost in technology is in maintaining it, not in building it."

He commented on the golden rule for entrepreneurs: Pick one thing, a narrow vertical product or service, and focus on it exclusively. Red Hat, he then explained, violated that rule, since "there is a no more horizontal product than an operating system." He also noted how Red Hat violated the unspoken, but well-known, rule of technology: "Don't take on Microsoft."

Young went on to explain that to make the open source model viable, the first step is to change the rules of the game, since open source is counterintuitive to the traditional software market model. And with open source software, it is essential to demonstrate three elements to pull people from proprietary operating systems: more benefit, more control, and less cost than one gets with Windows, Mac OS, or Unix.

Young spoke for a few moments on easy access to the Internet as an enabler of the open source movement, and then made a few predictions.

First, he countered the notion that a successful open source movement will mean that programmers get real jobs and quit contributing. The easy communication fostered by the Internet means there are more programming teams coming up all the time, he said.

Next, Young predicted that the splintering, or balkanization, of Linux is not likely to occur like it did with Unix. He reminded his audience that each flavor of Unix was proprietary, and each only maintained interoperable similarities with others voluntarily. With open source, he said, the license makes all the difference.

Young's address wound down with his assertion that in some markets -- especially tightly vertical ones -- the proprietary model may work better than the open source model. His example was of specialized dental software. Under the open source model, if it costs $500,000 to develop, a single dentist would have to pay that to have the software built, after which he could freely give it away to other dentists. Under a proprietary model, it could be developed for $500,000, sold to 1,000 dentists at $1,000 a pop, and the developers would be ahead $500,000, and each dentist only out $1,000. What's that, a third of the price of a set of braces?

The subtitle of Young's talk was "At what point do we declare victory?" Although he didn't directly answer that question, the content of his address seemed to say that the introduction of a viable open source model to the business world has already spelled victory for the open source movement.


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