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Enter Late - and Dominate [Theorem Homepage]  
Software Vendors That Adapt Can Thrive-- While Others Dive

Published June 2001

"Mezick's Theorem" states that open source dominance is the last phase in the lifecycle of all mature horizontal software markets. The Linux phenomenon has many scratching their heads. Just why is it that Linux does not go away? Why exactly is it successful? How can such a "non-product" triple its market share in just one year? It continues to baffle industry ‘experts’ because the dynamics are just beginning to actually emerge. But the true picture is taking shape-- and the contours of the future regarding software markets is becoming much more clear. The lessons of Linux provide the roadmap for the future.

The legal foundation of Linux usage is the General Public License (GPL), which grants the user certain legal rights and in return, imposes certain key obligations. Chief among these is the obligation to provide the source code of any derivative works-- to anyone who asks.

The GPL license is at the heart of Linux success. Understand the GPL, and you understand not just Linux dynamics, but also the likely future of the entire software business.

Winners and Losers
GPL software threatens software vendors that supply platform infrastructure and widely applicable (horizontal) software, in mature markets. This means Microsoft is clearly threatened, and thus, a huge potential loser. Subscription-based software and the Palladium initiative are two examples of direct response to the GPL threat. Microsoft clearly has the most to lose if GPL software efforts are mostly attracted to big, huge, mature, dominated software markets.

Whether large verticals such as ORACLE accounting, PeopleSoft HR or Seibel CRM applications are exposed to risk is an open and interesting question. However, what’s clear is that for GPL software to succeed, the market-share war must be over-- and a vendor with dominant share must own the space. It is in exactly this kind of market that GPL software has succeeded and will continue to thrive. If I’m right, this means server-side operating systems (Linux), application infrastructure (app servers, databases), and large horizontal application markets (desktop OS, desktop productivity apps) are each eventually going to be transformed by the power of the GPL license.

The Last Shall Be First
I believe only certain mature markets can be affected by GPLed software. Thus, even a truly excellent infrastructure offering like the application server JBOSS will not be successful - yet. This is because there is a battle for dominance between IBM Websphere and BEA Weblogic. Today, JBOSS has scant market share and not widely recognized. The market space for app servers is not yet mature, with one vendor dominating. However, once the smoke clears and one winner emerges, JBOSS (or other GPLed app server) will begin to transform that market as the last entrant. When an open source product competes with for-profit software companies in a new market, a process called hybridization takes place. Any innovation from the open source product is quickly co-opted and becomes a feature in the for-profit product. The for-profit product comes from a well-funded company that provides value-added services such as support and consulting. Thus, the early open source entrant is doomed to failure unless and until that market matures. Software markets dominated by one vendor are by definition, mature.

Thus, immature software markets, especially infrastructure markets, are safe - for awhile. And so are vertical markets, where applications are written to solve an industry-specific problem. The implication here is that the largest, most lucrative, near-monopolized software markets are precisely the markets where GPL software can be very successful. Indeed, immature, competitive markets are not at all conducive to GPL success.

The Lessons of Linux
What’s clear from the lessons of Linux is that when GPL software is the last entrant into a saturated market, over time, the GPL offering will gain market share, and eventually transform that market. Think of GPL software as the last, late entrant into the largest, most established markets- and the competitor that may very well dominate that market over time. I predict that if the GPL is not legally invalidated in court, Linux will eventually commoditize the market for server-side OS software. The reasons are subtle and powerful, but I believe this "enter-late-and-dominate" pattern for GPL software will likely continue over a period of decades across most large, mature software markets. This is especially true for software infrastructure markets such as operating systems, app servers and databases.

The GPL spawned Linux. Think of the GPL, not Linux, as the disruptive "technology". Linux is simply a powerful object example of how of the GPL can and will continue to transform software markets.

Logical Conclusions
Let’s say I’m right. Based on these observations of the GPL and Linux, we can expect some very specific software market developments in the future:

  1. Software vendors with the most to lose will try to sponsor legal attacks on the GPL, and not just with FUD or spin. They will attack in court directly or through surrogates. I predict there will be many legal assaults on the GPL. If the GPL can be invalidated in court, Linux would likely become public domain. Under that scenario, the vendor best prepared to embrace and extend Linux could effectively own the market for the Linux operating system.

  2. Software vendors with the most to lose will attempt to create protocols and standards which are dependent upon underlying, proprietary patents. Since patents grant a legal monopoly, such patents have the effect of monopolizing the legal right to implement and use the standards built upon them. This power will be used as an legal weapon to prevent GPL software from gaining traction. Over time, expect patent law to become perhaps the most prominent weapon against the power of the GPL.

  3. The app server market will eventually fall to the GPL. Once the app server market is dominated by one vendor, GPLed software should enter late, and eventually dominate, in a pattern similar to that of Linux. Try to recall that Linux is almost 12 years old, and it is only now that it is on everyone’s radar. Microsoft first noticed Linux in 1998. By then, the Linux development effort was 7 years old.

  4. GPL software offerings that enter immature markets will not gain significant market share until the target market shakes out - and one vendor emerges. Thus, GPL project leaders should and will avoid sexy, disruptive technology markets and focus instead on the largest and most mature markets dominated by one vendor in the space. New potentially lucrative markets addressed by venture-backed startups are by design hostile environments for open source offerings.

  5. Large vertical-market software products are safer and will therefore become more lucrative on a relative basis. The best software markets are those in large vertical markets, because they will never be challenged by a GPL offering. This is because mass markets for technology (operating systems, app servers, databases) make the best GPL/free software targets.

  6. The desktop meets all the criteria for successful GPL and is literally a sitting duck. The market for desktop OS and desktop applications is primed for successful GPL software offerings. Old, mature, and thoroughly developed, the desktop is dominated by one vendor-- Microsoft. This is prime hunting ground for GPL projects. The biggest thing holding back Linux and Linux apps from desktop use is the use of custom Windows apps in larger organizations. With more and more apps being deployed on the web, it’s only a matter of time before this obstacle starts to disappear. This subject could be the basis of another entire paper explaining why the time is now for GPL on the desktop.

  7. These transitions will take time and along the way many ‘experts’ will dismiss the success of open source as temporary. It’s anything but. What we are witnessing is the evolution of the software business, driven by Internet connectivity. ‘Enter late and dominate’ will become standard operating procedure for the leaders of GPL projects, who gain substantial prestige and status if they are successful leading a successful, large-scale open source project. Again, the attraction to large, semi-monopolized markets seems mysteriously guided by an ‘invisible hand’

  8. Open source projects are the last step in the final development of mature, commoditized markets. Dominant software vendors have little incentive in innovate when users leverage only a small percentage of product features. But vendors continue to add features in an attempt to generate revenue from upgrades. When upgrades wane near the end of the product lifecycle, vendors resort to desparate measures such as enforced single-use licensing, subscription-based purchasing and so on, in an attempt wring revenue from a mature product. When a software market gets to this point, it is vunerable to invasion by open source.

  9. Vendor imposed limits on using and procuring software drive the dynamics of the last phase of a software market’s maturity. Studies have shown that open source software has trouble rooting in countries where piracy laws are weak. This makes perfect sense. In countries where piracy laws and enforcement are strong, functionally equivalent open source software becomes a valid, cheaper alternative. Attempts by vendors to wring revenue from mature markets such as subscriptions and enforced single CPU usage have the ironic effect of actually driving users to functionally equivalent GPL offerings. In other words, vendors that ‘own’ mature software markets actually accelerate open source market share gains by imposing limits on how that software is procured and used. GPLed software is the logical last phase in maturation for all large and horizontal software markets.

  10. Software markets will always start with venture capital and some will become horizontal in nature. But the new twist is this: all horizontal software markets will mature to be dominated ultimately by a single open source product. Open source dominance is now the last phase in the maturation of any large, horizontally applicable software market. New markets will start with venture capital, as always. Successful startups will then enjoy a robust period of growth. But later, if that market becomes truly horizontal and mature, it will by definition become a target for eventual dominance by a single open source offering.

  11. We should expect GPL/open source software to be very successful, and we should expect this success to take longer than anyone is predicting today. Open source software does not care how long it takes to dominate. Unlike profit-driven enterprises, open source projects have no need for immediate profit. For the project leaders and programmers in these projects, the payoff is ongoing status and prestige in the developer community. By definition, these players are served by ongoing prestige. Such ‘prestige motive’ is best served by succeeding slowly, over time. This slow-process dynamic is further fueled by a passion on the part of programmers to engage in craftsmanship and engineering excellence. By targeting markets that have matured in terms of features and innovation, open source project leads have nothing to fear from taking time, and are happy to take all they need to add to their prestige and status while focusing on quality.
  12. Each of these points could be a paper in itself, and I hope that others in the IT analyst and developer community will further develop these ideas.

    We’ll all know for sure if they are valid in about 10 to 20 years. I'm pretty sure these ideas will prove durable over time.

    Daniel Mezick is President of New Technology Solutions Inc, a company dedicated to educating software developers. To reach Dan, send your feedback on this article to info [at] newtechusa [dot] com, and he'll get it.

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