First Person: Commentary from Sax.Net founder Mike Sax

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

MikeSax.jpgIt’s time for open-source and commercial software advocates to do what’s right for the customer.

By Mike Sax

The world of software has gone through quite a bit of change since I moved to Eugene to start my own software company 15 years ago. At the time, one of my favorite things about the industry was the way companies would vigorously compete and work together at the same time. Building products customers wanted was the central focus and, in many cases, these customers used a mix of competing products from different vendors.

Software companies were so focused on pleasing their customers they would set their dislike of competitors aside in order build products that would play well with others. A new word — co-opetition — was even invented to describe the practice.

A few years ago there was a big change in the industry. Everyone started suing each other over technology integration and patent violations. It felt like the lawyers were pushing the developers aside and taking over. It was a trend that made the industry much less fun for the technology geeks who started it and much more complicated for customers. Suddenly, customers were caught in the middle of legal disputes and forced to choose sides on issues they didn’t care about. All they wanted was products that worked together well.

The good news: The tide seems to be turning. Recently, two industry giants, Novell and Microsoft, announced an agreement that brings back the spirit of doing what’s right for the customer. Novell is one of the primary vendors of Linux, archrival to Microsoft’s Windows operating system. The agreement put their business differences aside and created a framework in which the two companies would support and work with each other’s products.

Utah-based Novell is a poster child for open-source software, while Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., is the world’s most successful commercial software company. Oregon is somewhere around the middle between these worlds.

Our state has attracted some of the best open-source talent (Oregon resident Linus Torvalds, the inventor of Linux, comes to mind) and has developed a strong reputation in the open-source world. At the same time, many of Oregon’s best jobs depend on commercial software and technology companies. The struggle between open-source and commercial software has manifested itself in corporations, universities and even state government.

The rivalry between open-source and commercial software has caused many people to take sides, but the practical reality is not so black and white. Most organizations use a mix of both kinds of software. Most customers don’t care about the philosophy behind their software; they just want something that does the job well.

This Novell-Microsoft peace-making agreement has generated lots of buzz. Analysts, bloggers and journalists have been speculating on the wider implications, the strategic impact, what it all means — even a conspiracy theory or two. I don’t care to join the ideological debate.

What I do care about is the practical impact — which for us is 100% positive. Like many businesses, we rely on both commercial and open-source software. So when two giants from separate worlds decide that it’s time to do what’s right for their mutual customers, that is a very good thing. With Novell and Microsoft agreeing to mutual support, I don’t have to worry about getting caught between finger-pointing support agents. I can choose the best tool for the job.

I’m optimistic again about the software industry. Things were looking grim for a while — we heard more about legal strategies than about new products. Now, it looks like co-opetition is back and customers are the kingmakers of the industry again. As a customer, I’ll always pick companies that choose innovation over litigation.

Everyone benefits from focusing on solutions rather than a game of tug-of-war between commercial and open-source software. Oregon is fortunate to have a strong foot in both worlds, with a leadership position in open source and large numbers of Oregonians being employed by commercial software companies. Animosity between the two is unproductive. If we can keep Oregon’s civil wars limited to football rather than software, we’ll all be better off.

Mike Sax is president and founder of Sax.Net in Eugene.

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