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How Consolidation Affects Open Source

So, now that the dust is starting to settle from the news that Sun is buying MySQL for a staggering $1 billion pricetag, let’s take a look at the larger picture– how is consolidation going to affect the open source ecosystem? MySQL was the first project in 2008 to be absorbed this way, but it certainly won’t be the last.

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So, now that the dust is starting to settle from the news that Sun is buying MySQL for a staggering $1 billion pricetag, let’s take a look at the larger picture– how is consolidation going to affect the open source ecosystem? MySQL was the first project in 2008 to be absorbed this way, but it certainly won’t be the last.

The trend is clearly towards single-project open source plays being snapped up by larger players like Sun, Red Hat, Novell, and so forth. If you look at any company that’s backing a single open source project, the odds seem to be that it will either fail, or eventually be bought by a company that sees the project as an asset to its overall strategy.

The question is, how is this trend going to affect those who contribute to and/or use these corporate-sponsored projects? This is just one more piece of due diligence that companies need to do before depending on an open source solution. The answer (I think) is that it’s going to be an inconvenience, at worst, for those projects with strong enough communities to rally behind the project if the corporation fails (or is perceived to fail) in its stewardship of the project.

This trend isn’t that different from proprietary software players, except that it’s sort of new to the open source space– it’s still a novelty when an open source play is bought for hundreds of millions of dollars, while this sort of thing has been commonplace in the proprietary world for years.

It’s also different in that we, that is customers and users, have a fallback that the customers of proprietary software don’t have: We have the opportunity to fork the code if an open source company goes in a direction that we don’t like.

For example, think for a few moments about recent acquisitions in the proprietary software world, like Adobe’s purchase of Macromedia. Users of Macromedia Freehand got to see it discontinued when Adobe decided it didn’t need to continue developing a program that was so similar to its own Adobe Illustrator. I’m sure you can supply your own examples of proprietary packages that were discontinued, or just seriously bungled, after the company behind the software was purchased or merged with another software company.

Adobe wouldn’t have been able to do this, of course, if Freehand was an open source project. It might have faded into obscurity if Freehand lacked the community to keep it going– but at least users would have the option to keep the project alive.

The open source model, then, serves as an effective bulwark against a company buying a competitor to take it out of the market. It also provides an escape hatch for projects that are snapped up, continued, but mismanaged. That’s actually a pretty significant advantage for users and customers over the proprietary model.

The real question is, does a project have a community that can step in and take over development? While MySQL doesn’t have a particular large external development community when compared to a project like PostgreSQL, it’s pretty obvious that with as many users and organizations that depend on MySQL, it’d be able to muster support if it ever came to that. Can you say the same about the other projects you depend on? Food for thought as we see a year full of consolidation on the horizon.

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is Managing Editor for linuxdlsazine and the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell. His blog is at zonker.opensuse.org.

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5 Comments on How Consolidation Affects Open Source »

vasudevram said: +0  Add karma Subtract karma

Interesting post …

I agree with the points you make.

As you say, the open source model does at least give us the option to keep the project alive if it is perceived that it’s being mismanaged or killed off. But, at least for more complex projects, the odds of there being people available who are have the needed skills to fork and continue developing it, is somewhat lower, though of course still possible.

Just a thought - maybe some progressive and interested companies that get to know about such cases that occur, could sponsor some developers to work on such projects. OpenLogic - www.openlogic.com - is one company that is doing some work to promote open source projects.

- Vasudev
Vasudev Ram
Dancing Bison Enterprises
Software consulting and training
Biz site: http://www.dancingbison.com
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January 24th, 2008 1:34 PM (permalink)
tink said: +1  Add karma Subtract karma

I think that there’s a major difference here. PostgreSQL never started out as company-owned or company-driven, which is a big difference to MySQL. Have a look at this very interesting blog post


on this topic.

– cheers,

January 24th, 2008 2:05 PM (permalink)
mdiggory said: +0  Add karma Subtract karma

If the Company being purchased actually is maintaining the infrastructure to support the open source aspects of its product-line (SCM, Listservs, bugtracking, etc) then the purchasing company could potentially disrupt and de-rail an entire open source community simply by flipping the off switch. Certainly, there are other copies of the code present in other groups that still adheres to the original licensing terms, but one can’t underestimate that many larger OS projects tend to create their own localized/centralized infrastructure. An Open Source community with a serious marketshare could possibly be derailed long enough to give the purchaser an edge in that market.

January 24th, 2008 2:10 PM (permalink)
blackmagic said: +4  Add karma Subtract karma

I don’t see that open source projects are particularly vulnerable to being purchased by the corporate sector.

MySQL is a special case because it was owned by an existing corporation, it’s free software rather than open source software, and the open source community has no influence on its development or future. All that’s happened here is that one corporation has sold an asset to another corporation.

If a corporation wanted to acquire PostgreSQL, who would have the right to sell PostgreSQL? I don’t think there’s a particular entity that would put its hand up and say ‘I/we have the right to sell PostgreSQL’.

On that basis I think this article is idle speculation lacking a serious business context.

January 24th, 2008 4:06 PM (permalink)
estiedi said: +0  Add karma Subtract karma

Sun is the father of Java, right? Sun open-sourced Java, even with the risk of forking, right?
I really don’t see why Sun would like to kill MySQL.
Sun is, IMHO, one of the biggest corporate OS supporters.

January 25th, 2008 12:51 AM (permalink)
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