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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.

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.

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