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To Master Tech You Must Master Software — And Open Source — Even If You’re Apple

Posted: September 26, 2012 / in: Linux / No comments

During my keynote at LinuxCon, I showed a picture of five smart phones from five different manufacturers with their screens blacked out. Think you could tell them apart? Without a UI they are all virtually indistinguishable from each other. When their screens are enabled, it’s easy to tell the difference between Blackberry’s and iPhone’s, Samsung’s Android devices and Nokia’s Windows based machine. My point? Software is where the heart of differentiation lies.

The leaders in technology understand this. Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz had a brilliant op ed last year in The Wall Street Journal about how software is eating the world. He’s right. To master technology you must master software.

But there is a corollary: To master technology you must master open source. The real leaders in tech are understanding that to go it alone and develop software in a company cloister is foolish, expensive and time intensive. It’s also a great way to lose market and financial share. Just ask RIM and Nokia, two of the most prominent and last remaining examples of companies who don’t leverage open source prominently in their products. Nokia, which chose to bet it all on Microsoft, has seen its share price dwindle over the last two years. And RIM, which purchased a proprietary version of Unix in QNX, teeters on a fiscal cliff.  

You may be saying, but what about Apple? Look at their success being the most closed company in the world.

Of course, Apple is closed; from its semiconductors to its app store policies, it runs a tight ship. But the company’s market success can’t be denied. Apple has sold 5 million iPhone 5s in a week. And it’s doing it by leveraging the use of open source to power its business. Pick up your iPhone and take a look at the legal notices in the About file. You will find the GNU General Public License, you will find names of Linux developer copyright holders, you will find names of Linux distributions. Apple’s market cap is $623 billion. It could buy Intel, IBM and Dell combined. Did it buy one of these companies to expand its closed reach? No. in 2007 it purchased CUPS, an open source printing service which it continues to offer under an open source license. Even Apple knows it must leverage the massive research and development resources available via open source.

Other traditionally closed stalwarts have also gotten into the open source game. VMWare recently spent $1 billion for Nicira, a networking company that makes up the core of the OpenFlow open source project. With Nicira, it will now allow customers to choose its closed source product ESX or open source choices KVM and Xen. This would have been taboo to even think about at VMWare just a year ago.

Even Microsoft, the traditional villain against all that is open, has realized that to expand to cloud it can no longer restrict developers to its closed source offerings. Go to its Azure cloud platform and you can choose Windows guests, but also Linux offerings such as Ubuntu, Red Hat and SUSE. Microsoft has gone from touting Linux as a cancer to offering it to its customers on the same footing as its own cash-cow. In 2011, Microsoft became a top contributor to the Linux kernel for the first time. Times have clearly changed.  

Nowhere will this collaborative development process be more pronounced than in the cloud. The cloud has and will continue to change the economics of the technology industry forever. Amazon has an early lead with its platform built entirely with open source software. The vendors instead of going it alone are joining forces in such projects as OpenStack and CloudStack. Where once you looked to your vendor for help navigating the waters of technical trends, you now will turn to the open source projects that comprise the cloud. Projects led by engineers, not business people, that include Linux, KVM, Xen, Gluster, Ceph, oVirt, Puppet, Chef and others.

I joked during the keynote that while the suits were up at VMWorld talking about the cloud, the geeks were at LinuxCon actually building it. The one thing I left out is that there were plenty of suits in the room too, trying to meet, influence and hire the open source geeks that will lead the next wave of computing.

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