Open source is dying -- or maybe it isn't

The open source model is broken. Fighting Microsoft was a big mistake. And, yes, open source is the key to a better future.

Put three geeks in a room and it won't take long to start an argument. Well, analyst Dennis Byron, veteran open source exec Stuart Cohen, and ex-Microsoft developer Keith Curtis weren't exactly in the same room, but all three have provocative opinions about the future of software in general and of open source in particular.

Byron, who has 30 years of technology experience under his belt, thinks that the open source era is coming to an inglorious end, with Linux and the like becoming "an asterisk in the history and future of technology." Moreover, he claims that the long struggle against Microsoft's undue influence hurt the software industry more than it hurt Gates & Co.

Curtis, whose opinions are contained in his PDF book After the Software Wars, now available on the Web, says his former employer is "toast" and believes that free software is the key to breathtaking technological progress in everything from space travel and artificial intelligence to automobiles that drive themselves.

Cohen, CEO of Collaborative Software Initiative, argues that open source's greatest strength -- its top-notch code -- is also its greatest weakness. "Open source code is generally great code, not requiring much support. So open source companies that rely on support and service alone are not long for this world," he wrote recently in a BusinessWeek blog.

Why should you care? It's simple. Bad times -- and who can doubt that they're here -- are the most important times to question our basic assumptions. I'm not at all sure that any of these gentlemen has it right, but they certainly raise issues that developers, managers, and investors in open source should be thinking about.

(I had a chance to speak to Byron and Cohen after reading their blog posts, but I wasn't able to reach Curtis, so I'll simply quote from After the Software Wars.)

If it ain't broken, why pay to fix it?

When Cohen's post first appeared, he took some heat from people who thought he was saying that open source is sick. So he was quick to tell me that he was misunderstood: "Two issues get blurred. The health of open source software has never been better when we are talking about the quality of the code. The number of people using it and the number of enterprises deploying it have never been higher."

But he maintains that the classic open source business model no longer works very well, and so it has to change.

If open source code is so solid that it doesn't require much support (his assumption, not mine), how then does an open source company make any money? There are basically two ways, argues Cohen.

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Bill Snyder

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