I was talking with a favorite colleague recently about cloud computing, or, as he calls it, "cloud confusing." At some point our geeky conversation drifted to pondering the topic relative to the extensive computing industry consolidation that's occurred over the past 10 or so years. We wondered whether the industry consolidation has hastened or delayed the emergence of the burgeoning cloud.
Knowing I had an article due for this column, our discussion got me wondering about the impact that same industry consolidation has had on the evolution of open source (OS) and community source (CS) software in the intervening years. I'm not referring to niche OS and CS software — the critical applications that address software needs too small or too specialized for the traditional vendor market to address. These kinds of applications clearly serve a valuable — even vital — role in filling software needs that have not otherwise been adequately addressed. Instead, I'm talking about OS and CS software that address software needs already served by multiple vendors with competing products.
The question I keep coming back to is this: What would be the current state of OS and CS if the software industry hadn't seen the number of takeovers and consolidations it has in the past 10 or so years?
To fully consider this question, we have to imagine a world where database engines like Informix, Ingres, and Dbase still fight it out with Oracle. A world where business applications like Tesseract, Integral, and Software2000 are still viable, and others like PeopleSoft, JD Edwards, and Banner are all independently competitive. A world where all those vendors whose names were so commonly heard in the lead-up to Y2K, but barely mentioned since, still fight it out for attention and revenue in a rich marketplace. You get the idea. What if, instead of the current handful of mega software firms, there was an expansive, competitive market filled with many firms of all shapes and sizes? In that world, would OS software be as pervasive as it is? Would CS software have achieved the toe hold it currently has?
Or, in that imaginary world with its multitude of options for our common software needs, would OSS and CSS be thriving even more than they are now? Hmm...
It's a common notion to think that OSS and CSS are necessary because of a perceived lack of choice and the feeling that vendors have us customers over a barrel as a result of the consolidation of the software industry. But again, what if the playing field was much broader? That software market might be far richer, but at the same time far more chaotic, than the one we have now. Every vendor would be competing for something that would make their offering distinct. The result would likely be fewer standards and a lot more confusion. If that were the state of the software market, would that be the reason OSS and CSS were necessary?
Perhaps consolidation has indirectly led to standardization and calmed what would otherwise have been a software market free-for-all. Would a software market with lots and lots of choice be better or worse than what we currently have? And in the scenario where the software market had many more competitors than we currently have, would we look to OSS not so much as a necessary alternative but as a much needed stabilizer in what was otherwise a confused and frenzied market?
I'm just asking…
Each EQ columnist is invited by EDUCAUSE to do a year's worth of articles — four, what with this being a quarterly magazine — and then the gig is over. This is number four for me, and I'm sorry it's over. Thanks for reading, and thanks to those who reached out. This was a lot of fun.
© 2009 Colin Currie. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license.