Does Open Source Threaten American Software?

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The short answer is no. But it's amazing how often I hear otherwise.

After all, critics of open source will note, "Intellectual Property" (a lawyer's term for patent, copyright and trademark rights) is America's key advantage in global competition. Open source throws that away. Might as well turn over the keys of American exceptionalism to China and turn out the lights, goes the implication.

Turns out there are two kinds of software. There are tools, which are used to create new software, and there are applications -- the programs that actually do things.

Open source mainly works with tools. The Linux operating system, the Eclipse set of programming tools, Apache's set of web tools, the OpenStack cloud stack. These programs improve everything that runs on them. They make applications easier to write, they make them more secure, they make programmers more productive.

Put it this way. The biggest support of open source in the enterprise is International Business Machines ( IBM). IBM is not stupid.

Making coders more productive reduces the need for coders. Coding is the strength of our rivals in the software business. Our strength lies in imagining new things for software to do, in detailed design, in getting products to market. Better coding doesn't change that.

For all software buyers, meanwhile, the bottom line is the bottom line.

Earlier this summer my friend John Weathersby of the OSS-Institute, an advocate for open source use in government, brought together hundreds of open source business executives along with top managers of the National Security Agency and other security agencies. The cops and spies want and need better tools. Open source provides them. So they want open source.

Weathersby has also helped with the launch of Suricata, an open source security suite that is drawing immense interest from governments because it's open source, because it's extensible, because it can be customized, because governments can see and edit the code.

Open source is the right way to develop better software tools. Better tools mean more productivity in coding and testing software, the parts of the process where you now need a lot of low-cost people.

Applications, or apps, are a different business. The emphasis there is on imagining what the app will do, creating a business model around it, and about time to market. This is where the big money is. It's what American companies do best.

In the app world, proprietary tools tend to win. The folks at Ubuntu Linux recently offered a list of the top 100 open source applications. You probably haven't heard of one in 10 of them. Most of those you have heard of are, in fact, tools and not consumer apps at all.

That's because apps are about taking the pulse of the market, about imagining what people might want, about rapid design and prototyping, and about marketing. These are the skills at which American companies excel. This is where the proprietary model actually works better than the open source model. Also, you can always build a proprietary product using open source tools.

So better tools don't threaten our software leadership. If anything, they emphasize it. Open source creates better tools, and our trading rivals are helping us make those tools. Better tools mean the pace of software change accelerates, and no country does change like this country.

We perfected adapting to rapid change. The faster the treadmill goes, the better for us.

At the time of publication, the author had a position in IBM.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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