Open sourcing code doesn\’t necessarily mean people will rush to it

John C. Dvorak wrote a nice layman’s introduction to open source this week on PCMag.com. But he makes at least one big false assumption.

Dvorak says he’d love to see old code open sourced. Some examples he sought, such as CP/M, CP/M-86, and GEM, have already been open source for years. Caldera, after buying the intellectual property of the former Digital Research from Novell, released just about everything that wasn’t directly related to DR-DOS, some of it as GPL, and some under other licenses. The results have hardly been earth shattering.Part of the problem is that the source code is sketchy. In some cases the original is incomplete or no longer exists at all. Some reconstructions have been attempted, but without the original code and comments, one can only speculate about the original author’s intentions. You might only be able to speculate anyway, but there’s less to learn. Much of what there was to learn from studying CP/M’s source code died with Gary Kildall–assuming Kildall himself remembered some of it. Have you ever come back to a project you did years later and had to think about why you did certain things the way you did? If not, your memory is better than mine.

Another part of the problem is that it’s too little, too late. GEM and CP/M-68K are primarily of interest to Atari ST enthusiasts. But the ST got defeated in the marketplace by the Amiga in the late 1980s, which was defeated soundly by the Macintosh, which is being defeated soundly by the PC market. GEM on the PC was a contender until Microsoft Windows 3.0 came out in 1990. CP/M-86 was dead on arrival in 1981. The original CP/M-80 was the only one of these products that was ever truly successful, and indeed it was–30 years ago. But the arrival of affordable 16-bit computers in the early 1980s spelled the end of that. By 1985, and arguably earlier than that, CP/M was a niche player.

Some other former commercial software that’s been open sourced gained more traction. The poster children are Mozilla (open-source Netscape) and OpenOffice (Open-source StarOffice). But Netscape was once the most popular browser, and perhaps the third or fourth most popular computer program, period, in the world. StarOffice was the second most popular office suite in Europe, and if it was #4 here, it was in a tight race with Lotus SmartSuite and WordPerfect Office for #2.

But most importantly, there were no dominant open-source projects in those two products’ space.

Also importantly, both products had corporate sponsorship from the get-go and continue to have sponsorship today.

Firebird, which is open source Borland Interbase, is a niche player, overshadowed by PostgreSQL and MySQL.

I know from my own experience that once a project serves my own needs, there’s no incentive to switch. That’s why open source projects frequently progress at a glacial pace. If the program is serving the author’s needs, why mess with it? If a sugar daddy comes swooping in with an offer of money, that’s plenty of incentive to mess with it. But that won’t always happen.

Open source proves more successful when it provides opportunity for people to pool their resources and build something bigger and better than they would be able to do on their own. This could be companies using open source programs when proprietary vendors can’t or won’t meet their needs and contributing their changes back into the pool.

More realistically, that isn’t always enough. The proprietary competition often has to make an unpopular decision. WordPress became huge when Movable Type‘s license changed. People flocked to it and it gained features that it lacked back when it was plain old b2. It was able to feed off an unpopular decision by a competing semiproprietary product.

Back when Internet Explorer was in active development and bundled with the operating system, Netscape couldn’t give its product away. As much as Mozilla has improved over the course of the past two or three years, it’s the stagnation of Internet Explorer that gave Mozilla a chance.

Linux itself owes much of its success to timing. At the time it appeared, the BSD family was entangled in court battles, which gave Linux a head start. Had FreeBSD beaten Linux to the marketplace in 1991, it’s entirely possible that Linux would be the fringe player, hanging on only because some people prefer the GPL to the BSD license.

Open source isn’t a magic bullet. There is no voice in the cornfield saying, “If you open it, they will come.” If you open it, they might come. But they probably have to have another reason.

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