I was reading a comment in a blog that expressed a typical whine I’ve heard a lot of lately: that Open Office was designed from the start to compete with Microsoft Office and steal precious marketshare. The secondary attitude that came through was “How dare they! The nerve! Someone help Microsoft, quickly!”.
Now I believe this is pretty funny, if not rather paranoid. I think with multiple billions of dollars to develop and market their software, no one needs to feel bad for Microsoft when they get a little competition, be it from proprietary software, open source software, or anything in between. I can’t imagine they themselves would want to be seen as a victim in the market in this particular case, especially with more than 90% share. It would be rather unseemly if they did.
I don’t think anyone was crying foul when the open source JBoss started to be taken seriously in the same market as BEA’s and IBM Java web app servers. (To be clear, we think it is in the lower end of that market, but that’s another discussion.) Open source software is allowed to come into existence for whatever reasons the creators can think of, be it competition for an existing market entry or just because of the sheer joy of creating an app in a popular category.
When I actively coded from around 1973 to 1999, I loved writing text editors. I didn’t write them to toss out any commercial market leader like SlickEdit or CodeWright, I did it to learn new programming languages and to experiment with data structures. I really love text editors and sometimes it takes a lot of personal strength to not start whipping one up in these days of bigger editing systems like Eclipse and much more modest ones like GEdit. Both of those are open source, by the way.
Competition is good for a market … for customers, not necessarily for software providers. Competition gives a customer choice of applications. This means software providers have to try to out do each other in terms of quality, features, and lower prices. So competition can lead to better products and more cost effective purchasing for customers, including governments. An honest, customer-focused software provider welcomes competition because it forces them to overcome challenges and produce the best result they possibly can.
Unfortunately, fear of competition or market paranoia can lead to shenanigans like lock-in strategies, including those around data formats, but, as above, that’s another discussion. Customers want choice of providers while providers want to do things so that customers don’t flee to competitors. To reiterate, this is how you do it: produce a better quality product with superior service at a better price.
For several recent years, there were only 3 or 4 commercial word processors and a very few low powered open source ones. Microsoft Word is still dominant, but we’re starting to see innovation and choice enliven the market. Corel is perking up with new variations of Word Perfect, IBM Lotus will have a fully ODF compatible word processor built into the next release of Lotus Notes, and Web 2.0 models lead by Google Docs are starting to get traction.
This is cool, this is exciting. New software that has innovative combinations of features that do things we couldn’t do before, like using a common open document standard like ODF, freshens up a market and drives technologists to do even better, even more cool, things. This is progress.
I don’t know if this happens to you, but sometimes I hear a song and think “If so-and-so hadn’t written that song, someone else would have.” There are some things that just fit into the scheme of the universe at a particular time, in my opinion, that get created by someone, somehow.
Linux seems that way to me in terms of operating systems. Perhaps Open Office is like that as well. Whatever Sun’s motivation was for the purchase of StarOffice and their subsequent creation and steering of the Open Office community, the idea of an open source office suite was inevitable. It was the market that decided, ultimately, what apps belonged in a full office suite.
Had Sun and the community not created Open Office in particular, some other group would have created something similar. I think this is true in other categories as well, such as MySQL.
So stop whining, stop bemoaning lost marketshare to open source, stop trying to lock customers in to your products. Start competing, start producing applications with the size and features that customers want. Start innovating in technology and in business. Do it for the challenge and the love of the technology and what it can do. Customers will follow.