For years, open-source advocates have been praying for someone to free us from Microsoft's proprietary grasp. We've prayed in vain as Linux, OpenOffice, and other open-source software programs have failed to dent Microsoft's dominance.
Google, not Red Hat or Sun, appears to be the long-awaited redeemer of both personal computers and servers, and has even staked a credible claim in the mobile world, as well. Google achieves this, in part, by writing copious lines of open-source code, but pays for this "generosity" with insanely profitable proprietary services, services that have long appealed to consumers but increasingly appeal to enterprises, too.
Google, in other words, is arguably not the open-source savior we were expecting, but it's probably the one we deserve.
Despite more than a decade of trying to make "pure" open-source software businesses work, it's telling that only one company--Red Hat--has managed to pull together more than $100 million per year in revenues for its troubles. For its part, Red Hat is quick to downplay the relevance of its revenue model for just about any other business.
Hardly a rallying cry to the still-growing open-source ecosystem.
Yes, MySQL got to $94 million before Sun gobbled it up, and yes, other start-ups (my own, included) are getting closer to the mark, but none, including MySQL, is wholly dependent on selling open-source software subscriptions to achieve this goal.
We also include proprietary add-on value. Like Google.
So we're left with Google, which is, perhaps, the world's largest open-source company, contributing more open-source software and resources than any other, in my estimation. (Sun likely wins on sheer volume of code, but being an "open-source company" involves more than simply code.)
How does Google do it? Well, for one thing, it learned long ago that monetizing open-source software directly is tough. So it simply uses open source to shepherd prospective customers to its other services, like Search or Google Apps.
Indeed, it is the success of these proprietary products that enables it to be such a generous open-source benefactor, much like IBM, Intel, or, for that matter, Sun (which sells a lot of proprietary hardware). Take away these companies proprietary product lines, and overnight we'd see dramatic decreases in their investments in Linux, Apache Software projects, etc.
And we'd all be the poorer for that.
In an ideal world, open-source software companies would thrive by simply giving away lots of code, and having enterprises and government organizations serve their long-term interests by paying for support.
We don't live in that world. Some organizations do buy support for open-source software, of course, though many others do not, and some only pay long enough to become self-sufficient whereupon they dump their support contracts, as former CTO of NBC iVillage Jon Williams once declared.
Until we cross the border into Utopia, we're going to continue to see the biggest investments in open-source innovation come from Google and its peers: companies with wallets fat with proprietary profits.
As I said, this may not be the open-source world for which we've hoped, but it's the one we deserve, because it's reflective of what we value and, hence, what we pay for.
See also Mark Hinkle's response to this post.