Two Views of Enterprise Open Source

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You can tell business is a bit quiet in the open source world, because it seems that everybody wants to talk to me at the moment – clearly they have nothing better to do. As I described, I met up with JasperSoft last week, and then the next day had a chat with not one but two companies whose views and comments offered contrasting viewpoints on enterprise open source.

Borland may not be a name you associate with free software. Rather, for many it will be rich with other associations – remember Turbo Pascal and Sidekick? Borland was set up by the ebullient frenchman Philippe Kahn, who was one of the few people who dared to take on Bill Gates, both verbally and commercially.

Whatever his success with words, he was less fortunate in business. Microsoft essentially won the battle for the hearts and minds of the developer community, and Borland became something of a lost soul, wandering the fringes of computing, trying to find something to do in the shadow of Big Bill and an even bigger Microsoft.

One of the people at Microsoft tasked with destroying Borland was Todd Nielsen, who was general manager for Microsoft's developer relations and platform marketing. In one of those delicious ironies of fate that suggests we do, indeed, live in an ordered universe, it is none other than Nielsen who now has the job of bringing back to life the Borland zombie. He's getting there: he hopes that the company will finally break even this year on a turnover of some $200 million.

What's interesting about Borland is that it is espousing something called the Open Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) Vision. This is “open as in platform-neutral”, not “open as in open source”. These are pretty high-end products that let corporate development teams manage the coding process – not something that people and their dog will be using in their garden shed.

Borland makes money selling software, but also through related services. History and Clayton Christensen teach us that premium-priced products are eventually destroyed from below by low-cost disruptive technologies getting steadily better until they are “good enough”, and the market flips over.

For Borland, as elsewhere, that disruptive technology is called open source, and it seems to me that the company will be forced to change its business model sooner or later. It's already making money from the services around its code, so that seems an obvious avenue to explore.

Nielsen agreed pretty much with the logic, but didn't see that move happening for a while. Given Borland's turbulent history over the last few years, I can understand why he doesn't want to make yet more radical changes, but his hand may be forced as free software alternatives mature inexorably.

Nielsen's cautious scepticism towards open source contrasted nicely with joyful embrace of it by the data warehousing company Infobright. This is doubly good news for free software.

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