December 16, 2003

Behlendorf: Open source at a 'tipping point'

Author: Chris Preimesberger

Brian Behlendorf, founder and CTO of CollabNet and president of the Apache Software Foundation, believes that open source is at -- or slightly past -- what he calls "the tipping point," with a bow to Malcolm Gladwell, author of a 1999 volume by the same name. Why? "Open source has been around for a while in various shapes and forms," Behlendorf said in a keynote address at the SD Forum's recent Open Source Summit, "but it didn't really start taking off until about five years ago, in 1998. It is an idea with an unstoppable course. For ideas like this to be unstoppable, they must reach critical mass and not have any restraints. Open source is one of these ideas."

Behlendorf believes that the open source movement is now at a major crossroads ("tipping point") because it has moved from being centered in far-flung, independent development shops or studios and is becoming more crucial to day-to-day work in the established business world. "Look at Apache," he said. "It's been running 60% of all the world's Web sites for six years now. I think it's now up to about 67%; it increases something like .2% per month. That's pretty amazing, when you think about it."

Reinforces open standards, systems

Open source developers are no longer generalized as individuals who "stay up late at night, drinking Coke and hacking. We're pretty much everywhere now, but we still can be pretty crazy, though," Behlendorf said.

"Open source reinforces open standards and open systems," he said. "That's why it remains an unstoppable force, and why enterprise has embraced it for mainstream systems work. I think we're going to continue to see our software go out and make a difference in the real world."

Brian Behlendorf

However, open source is still not widespread, Behlendorf pointed out. "Look around you; most of you here with laptops in this room are running Microsoft systems, not Linux. And this is an open source conference! I'm running FreeBSD and OpenOffice (for a slide presentation) on mine now," he said with a laugh, "but the fact is, most of the world runs proprietary software. Some people always will run it, no matter what. People and companies need to know that when they buy software, it will come with service guarantees, and the nagging impression out there is that open source doesn't provide this. This is changing, but perceptions are slow to change."

Corporations are generally confused about how to manage open source collaboration, Behlendorf said. "They're constantly worried about how to adopt new technologies before Darwin hits them," he said. "There's a reason your parents aren't using Linux; they need that throat to choke. Of course, a lot of people are using Linux and don't know it. If you're using a wireless LAN, then your gateways are probably running on Linux. If you have TiVo, you're running Linux. It's deep in systems, and becoming more pervasive all the time."

Sun's move into China a big factor

Sun's recent announcement of an agreement with the Chinese government to supply 200 million Java and Linux desktops to public-sector employees is a major step forward, Behlendorf said.

"I was just in China myself, talking with the government's IT minister. I told him I was glad that his government had made the decision to move to open source from Microsoft, which the whole country had been steeped in for years. I congratulated him on all the licensing fees they would be saving in the future. He said that he didn't see it as that much of a change, because they had been using Windows for free for a long time," Behlendorf said with a laugh.

"Once Linux and other open source software becomes established in the Far East, the established software vendors will find it increasingly difficult to sell into that market," he said. "In 2002 and 2003, open source found critical mass around the maturity of its software. For example, OpenOffice now is almost undistinguishable from Microsoft Office. Mozilla's feature set was complete a long while ago. Evolution has matured greatly. There are any number of other greatly improved apps out there now.

"One good thing that came from the recession is that companies learned to do more with less, and many businesses who hadn't thought about installing open source and free software tried it and liked it."

Trends and challenges

Behlendorf spoke about several trends he identified:

  • Open source development will become more transparent, largely due to more corporate use, increased litigation, and the Security and Exchange Commission.
  • More and more development will actually come under the heading of "integration." "Open source has tended to be the right way to do this, right from the beginning," Behlendorf said.
  • Companies will find they have to "collaborate or die."

Meanwhile, Behlendorf also sees some challenges for the next year:

  • Open source needs to scale up to involve the non-Western world in more of the development process.
  • The community needs to weather the "IP FUD storms, both bogus and real."
  • Everybody needs to balance "dogma with pragma, and passion with wisdom."


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