“Open source becomes successful when major industrial corporations invest heavily in that open source project,” Ellison said at a Tokyo news conference. “Every open source product that has become tremendously successful became successful because of huge dollar investments from commercial IT operations like IBM and Intel and Oracle and others,” he said. He highlighted his own company’s work in developing and promoting Linux, and said the operating system would not have enjoyed the success that it has without vendor backing. “There’s a lot of romantic notions about open source,” Ellison said. “That just from the air these developers contribute and don’t charge. Let me tell you the names of the companies that developed Linux: IBM, Intel, Oracle–not a community of people who think everything should be free. Open source is not a communist movement.”
Obviously, if a company sinks a billion dollars into a software project, it’s going to cause some improvements. But only a legendary blowhard like Ellison could believe that because his company donated some programmer time to the project that they therefore deserve all the credit for its success. In the first place, Linux is 15 years old. It didn’t begin receiving serious corporate support until 1999 or 2000–long after it had become a fully functional operating system. In the second place, “Linux” is not monolithic. Oracle has done work on the aspects of Linux that benefit his company, such as the file system. Other companies have done work on other aspects of the operating system. There are still other aspects that are still the province of volunteers.
So obviously, Linux would not have been as successful in the aspects that Oracle worked on without Oracle’s help. But so what? The same is true of each of the volunteers who contribute to various parts of the operating system. It makes no more sense to say that Linux is a purely corporate project than to say it’s an entirely volunteer-driven one. They both contribute, and they both deserve credit.
More to the point, Linux is the exception. Most open source projects do not receive substantial corporate support, just as Linux did not until after it had matured into a full-functional operating system. Perl, Apache, BIND, SendMail, Samba, the GNU tools, PostgreSQL, Python, PHP, CUPS, and dozens of other products are are all primarily decentralized, volunteer-driven efforts. And, in case these are not familiar names, these are all wildly successful open source products. They’re used daily by millions of people.
Of course, from Ellison’s perspective, a product isn’t “successful” until it generates a bunch of revenue on a coprorate balance sheet. But that’s precisely the point: for open source projects, the measure of success is how uesful it is, not how profitable it is. I realize it’s hard for Mr. Ellison to imagine that anyone could ever be motivated by anything other than money, but strangely enough, there really are people who enjoy developing software solely for the intellectual challenge it presents, and the pleasure of seeing it used by others.
Personally, I think contributing to a major open source software project sounds like a lot of fun, and I wish I had the time and expertise to do it. I guess that makes me a communist.