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Open Source and Web 2.0

by Daniel H. Steinberg
10/07/2005

To start the session on "Open Source and Web 2.0," Tim O'Reilly surveyed the early morning audience at the Web 2.0 conference with two questions he has been asking audiences for the past year or so. "How many of you use Linux?" asked the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media. Less than ten percent raised their hands. He then followed, "How many of you use Google?" Virtually everyone in the room raised their hands.

O'Reilly explains that arguing about whether traditional desktop applications run on Linux misses the point. Everyone who raised their hand as a Google user is, by extension, using Linux. It's a concept that requires a real change in perspective--but this is the change of viewpoint central to understanding Web 2.0. O'Reilly explains that the killer apps are the web-based apps like Google and Amazon, which both run on Linux, and Yahoo, which runs on BSD.

He then introduced Mitchell Baker, president of the Mozilla Foundation, and Jonathan Schwartz, president and CEO of Sun Microsystems. The panel discussion looked at open source, Web 2.0, and issues specific to Sun and Mozilla.

It's Not the Code

O'Reilly said that there is a split in the public's perception of Sun and open source. Some say that Sun is late to the open source party, while others say that Sun was one of the first to build a company by commercializing open source software. He asked Schwartz to explain how he thinks about open source.

For Schwartz, it is not about the code. He contends that "you really have to think about open source in two respects. One of the ways is in the distribution of intellectual property." Although he agreed that this aspect cannot be underestimated, he pointed out that a minority of the audience is developers, and that even a smaller percentage of the real world are developers. For Schwartz, this means that opening up the source code is not the important "open" to worry about, saying, "there are a minority of users that know what on earth to do with the Mozilla source tree."

Jonathan Schwartz

He continued, "What matters more in this world is the price of the software. Free software is what has massive power. Google is powerful not because it's running on any one technology, but because its service is free." He acknowledged that this opinion could anger some members of the open source community and added, "If you choose to focus on the code, you miss the massive phenomenon that has taken over the world, which is the freedom with which you can access wonderful network services ... Source code has no value in and of itself."

For Schwartz, the key is that "You reach a lot more people in the world with a free product than one you charge for." O'Reilly responded that Sun sells hardware. Schwartz disagreed. He argued that people didn't buy Sun hardware for the hardware but more for Solaris. O'Reilly countered that in the 1990s you could make the claim that Sun powered the internet, but that now Linux has really taken over. Schwartz interjected, "you mean Red Hat." When O'Reilly replied that he didn't think Google runs Red Hat, Schwartz dismissed this, because Google built its own computers and not a lot of customers do that. This highlighted the key difference in the two men's views of the use of open source. As O'Reilly concluded, "it's how many people use the services on computers built that way and not how many people build their own."

Later, in response to a question from the audience, Schwartz said, "everything Sun does will be open sourced. Everything." He turned to the audience and said, "Get to open source quickly [and] there is no downside I can see. Get to free quickly. There is no downside I can see."

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