The state of open source: Zack Urlocker, MySQL

MySQL's VP of products stresses the importance of serving community users and corporate customers simultaneously

Viewed by many as open source's most compelling business play in the past few years, MySQL made waves this year, accepting Sun Microsystems' US$1 billion acquisition bid, opening eyes on Wall Street as to open source's potential to shake up the software industry in the process.

Vice president of products at MySQL, Zack Urlocker, speaks about the challenges open source projects face in gaining deeper adoption in the enterprise. Here's how Urlocker views the business of open source today and in the years to come.

What do you see as the more pressing challenges and opportunities for open source given the current tech climate?

As with most systems software, it needs to continue to get easier to use. MySQL, Apache, PHP, Linux, JBoss, etc., are popular because they are powerful and easy to use. They are far less complex than some of the old proprietary software that was developed in the 1990s. But there's still a ways to go to ensure that all the software works well together with a single, simplified installation.

Open source has made the transition into IT and is being used for very complex systems development. But I think the infrastructure software is still more popular than open source applications. Still, we're seeing the start of that with companies like SugarCRM, JasperSoft, Pentaho, and others.

As we head into a recession with more IT budget crunch, I think we'll see the next wave of open source adoption. If it's good enough for telcos, banks, and the largest Web sites, maybe it's good enough for broader adoption.

Where do you see open source heading in the next five years, especially with regard to development, community, and market opportunities?

I think there's nothing but growth. Open source is an unstoppable force. We'll look back in 10 years and consider closed-source software to have been a weird anomaly. "You mean you paid millions for software without knowing if it would work?"

Young folks starting their careers in IT are already experts in open source; they've been using it for most of their college life. For managers and older developers, I think these are important skills to have. Just like you couldn't get ahead in the late 1990s without Web development experience, I think we're going to see the same trend around open source. These will be the necessary technical skills for career development.

We'll see more and more adoption of open source. The barriers to adoption are so small that it doesn't really make sense to launch new companies without using this approach. I think we'll also see huge growth in software-as-a-service and on-demand applications fueled by open source.

Does widespread adoption and commercialization of open source software create new challenges or pressures for open source projects?

There are projects and there are companies. Commercial growth is not everyone's top priority. Apache is hugely popular even though no one makes money off it. But I think there's greater awareness that you can build a business with open source today. That wasn't clear five or 10 years ago. Companies like Red Hat, Sun, IBM, make hundreds of millions in revenue due to open source software.

But you need to be clear if what you're doing is commercial or just a project. And if it's commercial, you need a business model that delivers value to paying customers. In effect, there are two classes of users in open source, and both are markets to pay attention to. There are your nonpaying community users and paying corporate customers. And you need to serve the needs of both groups at the same time. If you are not commercial enough, you end up like Apache. If you are not community-oriented enough, you'll never get the adoption and scale that works. Adoption must come first before there's an opportunity to commercialize. It's not easy to do this, but if you do it right, it works out well for both audiences.

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