OSBC2004: Tim O'Reilly on Rethinking the Boundaries of Open Source


Tim O'Reilly is speaking on "Rethinking the Boundaries of Open Source." Tim starts out talking about the "PC paradigm shift" when IBM created commodity computing and did away with proprietary advantage. Perhaps the most important result of this shift was that power was transfered from hardware to software. This birthed Microsoft.

We're in a similar paradigm shift today. Tim illustrates this with his now classic question "how many of you use Linux/how many of you use Google? The point being the everyone who uses Google uses Linux. The desktop is no longer the center of the universe. LAMP is a generic back-end platform that is often used to present a platform-agnostic front-end. These LAMP applications are being created by open source developers and run on open source platforms, but the source code is not distribute (and wouldn't be useful to many developers if it were). Licenses are triggered by distribution. The value in these applications is in their data and their customer interactions, not their software.

Free and open source licensing was invented to keep doing something old, not to do something new. Source code was traditionally open and close-source was new. Stallman invented the GPL as a defensive mechanism to keep the party going. GPL can be problematic because its too restrictive. Less restrictive licenses like Apache and BSD licenses work.

Here are some trends that Tim sees:

  • Commodity software with and open architecture
  • Information applications are decoupled from both hardware and software
  • Competitive advantage and revenue opportunities move "up the stack" to services above the level of the single device.
  • Value is based on data and customer relationships, not proprietary software.
  • Intel is still inside, but so is Cisco and eventually others--there's plenty of room at the bottom as well as the top.

Collaboration, not licensing is the real mother of open source. One aspect is "the adhocracy," like minded developers can find each other and self-organize in ever-shifting groups that free associate to achieve a goal. A second aspect is that software development teams can be distributed worldwide. Third, power shifts from companies to individuals because of the increased visibility of the network---everyone's a free agent. Fourth, users help build the application.

The first open source revolution happened in the 90's. The commercial Internet is a direct result of open source and even public domain software including UUCP, Usenet News, SLIP, DNS, Bind, Sendmail, Apache, and the WWW. The whole ISP business is essentially paid access to what used to be free. Right now, we have basic cable---the commodity components. Where are the premium channels?

Tim talks about the architecture and participation and Clay Shirky's three methods of building large collected works: (1) pay for it (Yahoo!), (2) use volunteers (Wikipedia), or (3) let users build it as a by-product of their own self-interested actions (Napster). This last method is used by eBay, Google, and Amazon to add value to their services.

Engineering reliable systems from independently developed components may be THE key open source business competency. Websphere is an example of a mix of proprietary and open source software. This is analogous to Compaq in the early days of the PC revolution. Tim asks "who's the Dell of the commodity software market?