Competitive puberty in Open Source land

Facts: a well known player in the Open Source ESB space posts a few benchmarks against competing OSS projects. A prominent blogger, whose company is developing one of those ESBs, suggests that Open Source companies shouldn’t compete amongst themselves, as there are plenty of proprietary alternatives to target first. Matt agrees, and Loopfuse’s Roy Russo goes the extra mile, describing the OSS business model as inherently monopolistic: when a player enters a market sector with an Open Source alternative, the barrier to entry is raised so much to leave little to no space for others.

My take: benchmarks stink, to start with. In my personal lie detector, they’re sitting between seasoned politicians and statistics. Competition by benchmarking is shortsighted to say the least: find me a CIO who considers vendor-driven benchmarks as a selling point, and I will easily convince him to buy Rome’s Coliseum. Extra brownie points go to Dave for avoiding the numbers food fight and moving the conversation to the next level.

Having said that, I find myself in significant disagreement with the rest of the conversation. I see competition among Open Source companies as a healthy sign of growth, and a necessary step to a consolidated and level marketplace. Acne and perspiration might be bothersome, but they both lead to adulthood and maturity. Open Source needs to understand that there are no special provisions in the IT marketplace: we must play by the rules, and it’s a wild world out there. Luckily so.

The early commercial Open Source has been based on substitute competition, building alternatives for a commoditized marketplace and avoiding direct confrontation with competitors by providing a different value proposition for substitutes. The commercially-declined Open Source proposition has been margarine for butter so far (which is an unfortunate example, actually: the way I see software history, Open Source – butter, that is – was there first, then the industrial alternative – proprietary margarine – kicked in pitching a supposedly healthier and modern alternative. We are now rediscovering that butter wasn’t so bad to start with. But I digress). The problem with substitute competition is that it’s short-lived by design: it doesn’t take much for others to see an opportunity window and chime in, moving markets to the next logical step, that is direct competition.

By the way, this is why the Open Source model is far from being monopolistic: it’s true that the first player is getting a nice headstart and a notable free marketing ride, but this is just another declination of the “yet another” concept, a myth easily debunked as all it takes to recover is being better, not to mention that pioneers might end up getting all the arrows. Most of the prominent Open Source players of today have actually been followers back then: old farts like me might remember how Yggdrasil was there before Red Hat, MySQL started as a mSQL (ok, not quite Open Source) spin-off, and we had several Exchange replacements before Zimbra was even conceived.

The field is level: the sooner we realize it, the better we will be able to react. Commercial vendors are entering the Open Source space with mixed propositions and hybrids: there is no point in complaining about competition amongst Open Source companies as if it was a “us” vs. “them” game: it’s not, anymore. I can clearly see a case for co-opetition in the commercial Open Source circle: fair play and joint initiatives can play an important role, but this is just a tactical perspective. What we need to do is focus on strategic innovation: substitute marketing and budget competition have gone for good, and this is excellent news in perspective. We are growing!

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