Mike Olson, the outspoken CEO of Berkeley DB provider Sleepycat Software Inc., believes that the successful open source players of tomorrow will incorporate at least some aspects of proprietary computing into their business model. In this conversation, Olson discusses why he thinks ever-evolving attitudes toward open source will make these hybrid offerings lucrative. He then runs through an interesting "thought experimentation" to show what would happen if Microsoft ever decided to embrace open source.
How are attitudes toward open source changing?
Mike Olson: If you had asked me that question at one and a half year intervals since 1998, I would have given you different answers all the way along.
When Linux began to be successful, a number of the big platform vendors, notably Microsoft, launched pretty vituperative anti-open source campaigns. The General Public License was communism written into a copyright statement. And at that time, buyers were just terrified of open source. They didn't know what it meant. But they were pretty sure they didn't want to let any in the door because it might make them sick.
You wait another year and a half, and big companies, including Amazon, Yahoo and others begin to roll out major infrastructures on top of Linux. The business community began to realize that this was actually an interesting tool for them to use. But of course, the reaction wasn't calm and reasoned. It was, 'Oh my God. Open source is the coolest thing since sliced bread. I gotta get me some open source.'
What is the approach to open source today?
Olson: These days, it's a much more intelligent and reasoned response. I think the reason is that the market is getting smarter because it's been longer exposed. Open source isn't some magic sauce that makes everything taste better. It is a great and useful tool in a number of important cases. But it's merely one thing for a business buyer to consider.
What's happened in just the last year or so is that the hype and the breathless interpretation of what open source means has ebbed. People understand it. As a result, people can make reasonable business decisions. People ask: Is this the right product for me? Are these the right license terms for me? Can I afford to give my source code away? Can the vendor sell me a duel license?
The interesting players are all going to be hybrids of intellectual property that you get that is proprietary, intellectual property that you get that is open source and solutions built in a way that really meets user demand.
What do you make of Microsoft's recent announcement that it will open up parts of its SQL Server code to select customers?
Olson: Microsoft's announcement with regard to SQL Server is really not an open source announcement. It's not anything different from what they've done with Windows in the past. It's always been possible for select customers who pay high amounts of money to look at the source code. They can't change it, but they can look at it. It may well make sense for some of the customers to look at the source code. But it's not an open source move by Microsoft. Even though it was covered in the press as if it were, it's just not.
How do you expect Microsoft to respond to open source technologies in the coming years?
Olson: I think that Microsoft is likely to respond more aggressively to open source in the next 12 months. There are a couple of tactics that they could take. One would be to embrace it, to pick some area of technology that really would benefit from open source out of Microsoft. They could take on an existing project and support it, or they could launch one of their own.
Following that line of thought, suppose that Microsoft decided to replace Internet Explorer 7 with Firefox or a similar open source browser. What would happen then?
Olson: That would instantly change the tenor and focus of the conversation in the market. It would be a great endorsement of Firefox. It would actually patch up a whole lot of security problems for Microsoft very quickly. And it would win both friends and enemies in an interesting way. I think it's an interesting experiment to run. If Microsoft were to become a real player and contributor to the open source world, I think that the entire landscape would shift. If Microsoft recognizes value and adopts open source, it would win a lot of open source converts, and there would be a much stronger push to embrace Microsoft in places where it matters.
What if Microsoft took the opposite approach and decided to act more aggressively to halt the progress of open source?
Olson: The only other thing that I can see that Microsoft would do would be to use its considerable resources to pursue legal tactics against the open source community to squash adoption. But the benefits that Microsoft would get from winning a case against a group of developers are basically non-existent.