Wednesday, April 4, 2007

IBM and Joel vs. FSF and Matt

The latest update on the GPLv3 saga is that it has (apparently) been dissed by IBM’s top software honcho, Steve Mills. A lifetime IBM employee, Mills was the subject of a front page article (subscription required) in Monday’s Wall Street Journal:

Increasingly, the public face of International Business Machines Corp. is that of Steve Mills.

Mr. Mills heads IBM's rich and acquisition-hungry software unit, which has buoyed results in recent quarters. He frequently represents the company at investor conferences and software-customer gatherings, and his rising profile reflects a new reality at the technology giant.

IBM still gets most of its reputation from its computers and most of its revenue from services, but most of its profit growth comes from software. … On a stand-alone basis, IBM would have had the second-highest revenue of any software company after Microsoft Corp. Software revenue grew 14.4% in the fourth quarter and reached $18.2 billion last year. Software accounts for only 20% of total revenue -- but 40% of earnings. Fast-growing IBM brands include WebSphere, a variety of Internet tools for business, which gained 23% last year; Tivoli, which manages computer systems, up 26%; and Lotus, which makes email software, up 12%.
Last week, the trade journal CRN tried to drag Mills into the ongoing GPLv3 controversy.
"At some point you become so shrill and beyond what's required that you lose the audience and the audience moves on to something else," he said.

"We'll have to see what finally evolves through the [GPL] process, it's going through an update and the Free Software Foundation has a particular view of free software. Free software is a wonderful thing but there's also a business model."

"We think there are other licensing techniques, the Apache license and others are somewhat less onerous. We use them ourselves. We don't use the GPL for reasons of its restrictions," Mills said.
On Tuesday, my friend Matt Asay (co-founder of OSBC and former Novell OSS strategist) slammed Mills:
But IBM's fetish for all things Apache has kept it from seeing open source as a tool that it can monetize directly…

It's not clear what audience Mills is worried about the FSF/GPL losing. After all, the GPL governs over 72% of the projects on Sourceforge. He may well wish that Linux, Alfresco, Jasper Reports, Xen, etc. etc. were Apache-licensed so that he could drop them into his proprietary products and keep to his 20th Century business model. But just because it's comfortable for him doesn't mean that the open source world should capitulate to his whims.

So IBM hasn't figured out what the rest of us know with ever-increasing certitude: it's possible to monetize open source directly. Ironically, it becomes easier the more freedom that imbues the software. Even more ironically, this is so because companies like IBM don't want to touch software that is free - it threatens their proprietary software.

I think highly of IBM, but find its antipathy to the GPL to be silly.
[About IBM logo]I think highly of IBM too, because its early support for open source made it legitimate for IT buyers around the world. Unlike the one-trick ponies of open source startups (that depend on such things like dual licensing), IBM has the broadest range of open source participation and greatest diversity of open source business models of any company in the world. It creates open source and gives it away (like Jikes), it takes its software to create a new community (Eclipse), it installs and supports (the GPL-licensed) Linux and pays to support the Linux Foundation (née OSDL), and they were the first major corporation to back the Apache Foundation. The list goes on: there is no “IBM” strategy for open source, because no company with 330,000 employees can think with one mind or speak with one voice.

As for Matt’s criticisms, the easiest to knock down is license popularity on SourceForge. The vast majority of software projects on SourceForge are vanity projects, irrelevant to business, consumers or the economy. Comparing SourceForge license choices to those of real software is like comparing the IT choices of bloggers to those of major news organizations.

It’s also silly (as Matt knows) to suggest that IBM has an Apache fetish. IBM, after all, brought us the IBM Public License (which became the Common Public License which became the Eclipse Public License), one of the first licenses derived from the seminal Mozilla Public License. Using the CPL/EPL, IBM created the Eclipse project — the first open source project to really integrate vendor sponsors, a non-profit foundation and the community from day one.

Instead, I think Matt has a GPL fetish. In its most narrow (some would say precise) construction, the term “open source” means any license approved by the OSI that conforms to its Open Source Definition. The Free Software Foundation notwithstanding, there is nothing in the OSD (or the OSI policies) that say that the GPL is any better than the MPL, EPL or even the Apache or BSD licenses.

I think highly of Matt Asay, but his love affair with the GPL is silly.

Graphic credit: Chris Onsted’s Achewood cartoon, via Joey deVilla’s blog

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Matt Asay (Pronounced "Ay-see") said...

Good feedback, Joel, but I think you missed my point. Everyone knows IBM is super generous and open source friendly. I think it may even be written in the Bible somewhere.

My point is that IBM's hybrid approach, while superficially sophisticated today (because we live in a hybrid world) will not be such tomorrow. From where I sit (and yes, I am biased), the most successful open source companies are those with a pureplay approach. It shouldn't be surprising that the biggest revenues attach to (L)GPL companies: Red Hat, MySQL, JBoss. Maybe this is why I have a "GPL fetish." Because it works. Name a software company that directly monetizes Apache-licensed code in any meaningful way. You can't find a single one.

If we broaden the definition of "open source company" to include "anyone that contributes to open source projects," then suddenly IBM and others get included and dilute my list. But is it right or useful to call IBM an open source company just because it contributes to open source and sells hardware that runs it? I don't think so. Is IBM an open source benefactor? Of course. Is it an open source company? No.

I think the winners will be those that figure out how to directly monetize open source software, and not those that are stuck treating it as a complement (because their existing business model or mentality simply won't permit them to open up). Is it valid to use open source as a complement? Sure. Is it going to be enough long term? I don't think so, especially if developers start closing off code to SaaS freeriders. I believe they will.

Look around: the world is commodified. Most of what we eat/drink/use/sit on/drive/etc. is a commodity, in the broad sense of the word. Software is anomalous - momentarily so - in allowing outsized margins on very little value. (in fact, lower value than one could get away with in other industries - imagine shipping a product that broke regularly.) Savvy open source vendors will be those that learn to thrive in a world where software is free - all of it. I don't think IBM's software business can thrive in that world.

Joel West said...

Matt: Since you left Novell to go to Alfresco, you’ve been a passionate defender of the open source pureplay. However, I think you tend to project your interests (and personal career focus) onto the rest of the IT industry.

Ten years ago, everyone was saying Dell was the future, and Michael Dell said that Jobs should return the money of Apple shareholders and close the company. Now we know that would have been a stupid idea.

There is no one strategy ideal for all firms — and, I would argue, there is no evidence to suggest that the average pureplay OSS company will be more profitable than the average software company (including IBM’s software division).

Diversity of business models is important for the survival of business ecosystems, just as diversity of species is important for natural ecosystems. Borland may go away but Rational will remain; EMI might die but Clear Channel will continue on.

Anonymous said...


I think you are right on here. Diversity of licenses, business models and technology will continue to exist and this is goodness for the software industry.

Good post.

Ian Skerrett
Eclipse Foundation