by Bernard Golden

Analyst Firm Gets It Half-Right

Sep 18, 20064 mins

IDC, a well-known analyst firm (and, in the interest of full disclosure, a sister firm of CIO’s publisher, CXO Media), has just released a study on the topic of open source, concluding that open source represents “the most significant all-encompassing and long-term trend that the software industry has seen since the early 1980s.”

IDC surveyed 5000 developers in 116 countries and discovered that open source is used by 71% of them and — perhaps more surprisingly — is used in 54% of their production environments.

Upon its release, a senior executve at IDC said “Although open source will significantly reduce the industry opportunity over the next ten years, the real impact of open source is to sustain innovations in mature software markets, thus extending the useful life of software assets and saving customers money.”

Yes — and no. Or perhaps more accurately, Yes, and more yes. 

The conclusions reached by the firm are very interesting. As it identifies a near-three-quarters proportion of software developers using open source, it recognizes the enormous impact that open source is having on IT organizations.

These organizations are leveraging open source to get their work done faster, cheaper, and with more control. This clearly represents a revolution in how IT operates.

On the other hand, IDC fails to really examine the implications of their findings. Their report analyzes the use of open source through the lens of the software industry — but that’s a myopic view.

This short-sightedness is a natural outcome of the vendor-centric approach to IT that most of the industry suffers from. So, from this perspective, open source is mostly about how it’s going to affect the packaged software industry — and its real impact is to shore up existing software markets. In other words, what’s important about open source is what it does to the software industry and, by the way, it will save customers some money as well.

While this acknowledges the effect open source will have on existing software players (which will be profound), it fails to recognize the revolution it will bring about in how we run organizations.

In a world of expensive, inflexible software, only the most conservative, obvious-payoff projects get funded. In the new world of open source, companies can experiment, develop prototypes on the cheap, and inexpensively scale the winners. To understand this dynamic, look at the Web 2.0 companies. I don’t necessarily believe that most of them have a sustainable business at their core — but that’s not important. What they represent is a totally different way of getting Internet businesses off the ground. What Flickr, YouTube, and a hundred other companies have in common is that they leverage cheap hosting, open source software, and commodity hardware to get going — without a cent of venture capital. Put in language that we all use: they delivered applications without having to make capex investment or even use much operational budget.

Seeing open source as the lower-cost alternative to traditional software categories is to miss the enormous effect it’s going to have on the industry. What open source does is to completely change the economics of IT projects. Viewing the importance of a new product type as how it will affect incumbents and established working practices is the long-honored mistake of established players, as convincingly described by Clayton Christensen in his books like The Innovator’s Dilemma. Time and again established vendors — and their customers — have evaluated new technologies by comparing them to existing technologies, typically concluding that they are inadequate, thereby missing the opportunity to take advantage of a new, cheaper way of doing things.

Don’t  perceive open source as a cut-price version of what you’ve already got. Think about what projects you can incubate and perhaps hatch into fledgling new lines of business by leveraging easily available, easily modifiable, low-cost software. Look where you’ve never looked before — instead of taking another look at the same old flock of applications.