Open source vs. proprietary software

The "scrufffy guy coding away in his basement" archetype stopped applying to open-source software a while ago.

It just doesn't make sense when you consider that heavyweight vendors like IBM and Microsoft - which built empires based on proprietary software - constitute some of biggest contributors in money and development resources to widely used open-source projects like the Linux OS.

In turn, Red Hat has built a nearly billion-dollar business based on open source.

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So where's the controversy? The situation may not be that as much as it is a quest for bragging rights.

"A lot of software innovation today is being driven by organizations that aren't in the business of selling software, which means that a great deal of it is open source," says Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady. "Proprietary software's role as the primary innovator in the market is, effectively, over."

That's not to say that every new idea in software is germinating in the open-source world, but proprietary software is certainly being shunted aside in that regard, O'Grady adds.

The open-source inventions of today are aimed at solving specific problems businesses are encountering, particularly those born on the web, according to O'Grady.

Take Yahoo. When the search company ran into problems processing ever-larger reams of information, it came up with the Hadoop open-source data processing framework.

"Consider, for example, whether Oracle ever would have been incented to invent something like Hadoop," he says. "The answer is probably no, because from a sales perspective, its potential impact would be negative. Yahoo, on the other hand, simply had a business problem to solve."

And now, proprietary vendors are ever more eager to hitch their wagons to open-source projects. Hadoop in particular is caught up in a virtual arms race, as companies, including Oracle roll out premium products and services that leverage the technology. Things are heating up in similar fashion for R, an open-source technology for statistical analysis long used by academics.

This trend in turn has led to a new debate, says 451 Group analyst Jay Lyman.

"Today's open source vs. proprietary software debates typically center not on which model is better, as I think there is some general agreement that both have their place," he says. "Instead, today's discussion centers on what is open source or not."

Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud and other public cloud services are largely built with open-source components like MySQL, JBoss, Tomcat, Xen and Linux. "But are they open source? Most people would rightly say they are not," Lyman says. "Nevertheless, all of the underlying pieces are open source."

"It used to be pretty clearly defined whether a vendor or product was open source, but as we've seen the largest vendors in the industry -- all of them -- embrace and integrate with open source software, those lines of definition have bled together," he adds.

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