Scott McNealy, Obama, and Open Source |

Scott McNealy, Obama, and Open Source

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Gene Quinn's recent post titled "What Happened to the Obama Open Source Initiative?" criticizes, in turns, open source software, Scott McNealy, the Obama administration, and "business newbies" who want to use the open source software model.

Early in the Administration, President Obama asked Scott McNealy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, to prepare a report on how the federal government could employ open source software, but Quinn notes that "as yet, some 26 months later there has been no mention of the report or across the board government adoption of open source software." The article then draws this strange conclusion:, "Perhaps the trouble associated with coming out with a report or even a government wide coherent approach is that open source software is not really free really."

Yeah, I didn’t understand, either. To summarize:

  • The President shouldn’t have commissioned a report on open source software.

  • Scott McNealy shouldn’t have been asked.

  • The follow-through on the report has been poor.

  • Therefore, open source isn’t really free.

Disappointingly, Quinn doesn't stitch these points together, robbing me of the opportunity to refute him. Instead, he uses the McNealy story as a christmas tree from which he may hang his favorite open source bugbears. I'm forced to content myself with refuting these instead.

He first makes the argument that open source is not a sustainable business model, and drags in a number of news articles to support this idea. Those four articles, if read in their entirety, present a very different picture. For example:

"…the business model for open source has been elusive, that there is doubt whether the business model can stand the test of time and that really only one company – Red Hat – is successfully making money." – New York Times

This article actually discusses how a number of companies, including MySQL, SpringSource and XenSource were acquired rather than going for an IPO. These companies are clearly desirable, and have created a great deal of value. Acquisition is a legitimate exit strategy, and I'm not sure why an open source company has to IPO to be legitimate.

The NYT also describes how open source has changed as it’s matured, being embraced by many companies as part of a larger strategy. Nowhere does it indict open source software as a business-killer. Instead, the article describes the billions of dollars in value that open source projects are creating for a broad array of companies.

"…the way to make a small fortune with open source software is to start with a large fortune, and then went on to point out that, ‘The open source revolution began at least two decades ago, but businesses and programmers are still struggling to understand the best way to share wonderful code and pay the mortgage.’" – InfoWorld

This InfoWorld piece illustrates how difficult it is to build large pure-play open source companies. This is true, but an open source project can still be useful to many, many companies and create a tremendous amount of value without requiring a pure-play open source business behind it.

In fact, the "open core" businesses wouldn’t exist without open source. The argument here seems to mutate from the assertion that open source is unsustainable into an even less defensible assertion that only pure-play open source businesses are evidence of open source’s business value. Quinn’s article then moves on to patents and open source:

"When the law offers a mechanism to create an advantage it is hardly unfair to exploit it. What am I talking about? Patents. If you have a software innovation you can obtain a patent on it and pursue a proprietary model...In the early stages of a business life cycle it makes all the sense in the world to copy and take from others. Open source must seem to business newbies akin to being a kid in a candy shop. But then after you create yourself it doesn’t seem quite so wonderful. Depending upon the open source regime you have copied from you may have no ability to prevent others from taking what you contribute that is new, which doesn’t sound so great after you have spent time and money creating that which is new. How will you recoup your investments? Exactly. You won’t, but you will be able to sell your time as a service."

This betrays not only a misunderstanding of why open source is written, but how innovation works. Sciences continue to innovate at a breakneck pace despite the widespread practice of "sharing", "peer review" and "collaboration". It’s been said many times over, but apparently bears repeating: open source isn’t about free [as in beer] software. The fact that the software has no licensing cost is a means to an end, which is the creation of an efficient marketplace of ideas and their rapid commoditization. That’s immensely valuable to a business, as we learned in the NYT piece.

But wait, weren’t we talking about Obama and McNealy? Ah, yes:

"..when you set out an initiative on the second day in office and you still don’t have anything to show for it exactly 26 months later I think it is legitimate to ask why. So why hasn’t there been more progress? Perhaps it isn’t as easy as it would seem to adopt something that the government thought would largely be free."

I’m sorely disappointed. I was hoping for a substantial argument against all the open source projects in the Federal government that started in the last 26 months. Instead, the article uses the notional McNealy report as an excuse to trot out these road-weary straw men.

Open source in the federal government is actually just fine. Companies like Red Hat (where I work), Acquia, JasperSoft, and EnterpriseDB are doing great in the government market. Consultancies like Accenture and Booz Allen Hamilton make use of open source under government contracts all the time. I'm meeting new small businesses every day that support open source in Federal agencies. Even Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and the other large government contractors are using more open source than ever.

In the last 26 months, we also saw the Technology Neutrality memo come from OMB. We saw the White House release Drupal code, the OMB release the IT Dashboard platform, and the Veteran’s Administration start to open source their VistA system. Lockheed Martin released EurekaStreams. We continue to see open source projects from NASA, who just held their first Open Source Conference last week. Even the State Department held a Tech@State conference to discuss how it could open source both internally and as part of its international development efforts.

These companies and agencies are not blind open source ideologues. They just find that open source is good for the mission and good for their business. This is, in fact, part of a larger trend in the marketplace. I think that’s a wonderful thing, and I don’t need a report from Scott McNealy to tell me so.

About the author

Gunnar Hellekson - I'm the Chief Strategist for Red Hat's US Public Sector group, where I work with systems integrators and government agencies to encourage the use of open source software in government.