Open source software as market competition

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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.


  1. [Bob S.]: “Competition is good for a market … for customers, not necessarily for software providers.”

    Bob, your analysis is true to my experience. For example, look at the success of the Windows text editor UltraEdit. It has a loyal following, but the dev team continues to make it better, recently expanded with and IDE version, and offers a Lifetime license. Too bad he hasn’t ported it to Linux, but at least he hasn’t ruled it out. Text editors are a good example (others might include zip and graphic viewers). There are dozens of text editors that will “do the job” — Jedit is a good example that many of my friends enjoy. But people like me tend to use a text editor for many, many things, from html, xml, note-taking, maintaining databases, and more because of one key: format versatility. I can take a text file and cut, copy, paste, or drop into any container.

    You also note a by-product of innovation and competition — excitement. There’s excitement in open source in large part because of the possibilities ODF offers. From Lotus Notes to Google Docs to enlivening WordPerfect to solidifying StarOffice/OpenOffice in the market, ODF offers solutions to a host of perennial archive problems. I’ve read the same “charge” against Sun and OpenOffice recently and it makes me wonder which meeting I missed where that talking point memo was distributed. In 2006, I helped twelve small businesses beta-test MS Office 2007, and by the end of the ear not a single business voted to upgrade to it. Eight stayed with earlier versions, and four eventually purchases StarOffice enterprise licenses (btw, Sun is offering StarOffice 8 licenses for half price through May 7th in honor of its anniversary).

    Why? In large part because of their future SOA plans that Microsoft didn’t fit into, but ODF did. The other reasons included that Microsoft did NOT “produce a better quality product with superior service at a better price” in MS Office 2007. Migrating to the 2007 version was going to cost these businesses far more than it was worth to them. With IT always taking a backseat in any budget, they had other priorities, notably hardware and server upgrades. ODF offered them an escape door from being locked-in, because what software they chose would also affect what hardware they would eventually have to have.

    Microsoft bet the farm with Office 2007, and so far, it seems a losing hand. The frustration they’re feeling comes from the relentless encroachment of open source onto the mainstream desktop.

  2. It’s deeper than that.

    If you look at the story between AT&T Unix and BSD Unix, you will see parallels. The story is here .

    AT&T’s position is roughly ‘recognition is nice but what we really need is the money’; whereas University of California’s postion is roughly ‘money is nice but what we really need is the recognition’.

    AT&T are in existence to make a profit; UC are in existence to disseminate knowledge. You need both kinds of organisation for a modern society to make progress.

    We still have successors to AT&T Unix; amongst them IBM AIX. If you want the source code for AIX, come work for Sam Palmisano and maybe he will assign you to develop or service it. If you want to use it, you can buy it here .

    We also still have successors to BSD Unix; , , and . Who knows whether they’re right for whatever you want to do with them, but for sure you can download the source code to tinker with.

    Software always seems to come in these ‘private’ and ‘public’ pairs.

    Now we have Microsoft Office and OpenOffice . Interoperability would be nice for the users.

    The question for IBM is what to do with Lotus SmartSuite . It’s sort-of caught in the middle; still for sale, but not actively marketed. What path should it follow ? Are ‘distribution rights’ for sale, and are there any likely buyers ?

  3. Much of what you say echoes my own thoughts Bob. I’ve often thought that if MS concentrated on producing good software and not on customer lockin, it would continue to sell a lot of software. I try to avoid MS products where possible to give the company I work for greater choice and, in general, lower costs. If I wasn’t getting locked in I’d be much happier about integrating MS products into what we do.


    We are a small company and use MySQL for a database. It works for us. If I was running an international airline or bank I’d probably use DB2 or Oracle because of:
    a. I’d need more of the bells and whistles.
    b. Support

    You will note that MS SQL server doesn’t make the shortlist in my business.

    Of course this means that as MySQL develop the product adding features and greater functionality, the “high end market” gets smaller forcing new developments from, in this case IBM and Oracle. At some point in the future either DB2 and Oracle may become niche products with open source databases holding most of the market or the database becomes entirely commoditised and DB2 and Oracle are open sourced. I think this is still a way off.

    In terms of technology, we have seen with Internet Explorer that MS is now a follower. In many areas MS has been a follower in OS technology for all of it’s existence. I fully expect it to start to be a follower in the office suite market over the next few years as Open Office / Star Office / IBM Lotus etc. develop products that are interoperable with each other and, from my point of view as a programmer easier to integrate with other (bespoke) applications.

  4. competition is good but not in doc formats, right? ;-)

    This is a great post Robert. But why didn’t you post a link to the comment? otherwise there is a danger it looks like a strawman. I mean OF COURSE openoffice was intended to compete with MS Office. To imagine anything else would be quite odd.

  5. It was one one many things I read in a rather jetlagged state. If I find the link, I’ll add it. Thanks for the comment, James.

    Per Wikipedia (, it started up in 1986 when the market dominance was anything other than MS Word. I remember using it as a cross-platform suite that worked, in particular, on OS/2.

  6. … and boy, has it come a long way since then! I remember an all-encompassing mega-app that imposed its own desktop on you and was dog-slow to boot.

    I still kinda miss OS/2. When you dragged a document to the printer, it didn’t automatically open up the application just to print. Those were the days. Any thoughts on opening up OS/2 to open source, Bob? What would an implementation of SOM be like under Linux?

  7. OS/2 contained a lot of third party code and the developers are well beyond it, so it would be very hard to completely sanitize it for open source. Even if it was done perfectly IP-wise, it would look like a CIA document where large sections were blacked out. We would rather people just focused on moving forward on Linux.

  8. There’s a no-charge demo CD of OS/2 here. It doesn’t belong to IBM at all any more. Take it up with Serenity Systems.

    We’re on Linux.

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