Asia and Open Source

Opera House, Dawn

It's early morning and I'm down at the ABC studios in Sydney right now getting ready to be interviewed for a business news programme broadcast across Asia (they say there is an audience of 40 million - gulp), and I have an interview with Sky News later. So I asked the excellent Patrick Finch if he had some up-to-date statistics on open source in Asia and he turned up some fascinating and downright scary facts, which prompted a reflection on Asia and Open Source.

Poised for an Explosion

It seems that a few years ago, more than 95% of the software market in China was foreign-sourced. Last year, however, 70% of the software their government was using was open source. That means a market over which western software companies were rubbing their hands with glee in 2003 (presumably awaiting the payout from the first hit that was free) now see the market potentially evaporating.

That doesn't have to be completely the case, of course. Free/Open Source Software is indeed Free, in the sense that the co-developers collaborating around the commons have all the liberties they need to engage with the code and innovate. But that doesn't mean there's no money in it. The overall cost of enterprise software has always been dominated by the lifetime cost of keeping it in production.

Software companies have usually focussed on the copyright license as the tool for monetisation, and have tried to bundle as much of the value into that fee. But in a world where there is no need to pay for a license, that tool is being discredited and the opportunity to monetise the delivery of value has spread back along the software lifecycle again, open to all to engage. In a market like China, open source actually increases the opportunity to make money, but ties it to the delivery of value throughout the lifecycle rather than allowing its monopolisation at the start of the cycle. To take part, it's necessary to get engaged with the various communities involved and be ready to deliver value - updates, support, training, consulting, system administration and so on.

Missing the Opportunity?

That's bad news if you were planning to ramp up the license fees and expatriate all the revenue, of course. In a world of open source development around a free software commons, much of the money paid for value stays in the local economy, developing skills in the workforce and growing local businesses with globally applicable skills. That's why Asia has seen a 40% increase in FOSS developers in the last three years - it's catalysed by all that use of open source by the governments (and by business in places like Singapore where they give tax breaks for using open source). That's why OpenSolaris is on the curriculum in over 100 universities in India (even without a formal pro-FOSS policy from the government). That, sadly, is why the greatest number of FOSS developers per capita is now in India and China and not in Australia (where it used to be).

Pretty much all that's holding back explosive growth of open source in Asia is the fact that english is the dominant language of computer technology. But maybe not for long. In OpenSolaris, for example, the Japanese language portal is now open, and a Chinese portal is not far behind. In China, Red Flag now has over 30% market share, driving investment back into local development in the local language, both on GNU/Linux and When I go to the China Open Source Promotion Union meeting in Guanzhou in June, I'm expecting to see signs of a chasm being crossed.

Meanwhile, the established world of software and content is fixating over licensing copyright and unwinnable wars while the real, participative, community-focussed market runs away without them. As I sit here in Sydney thinking about my keynote this morning to the CeBIT eGovernment Conference and the OpenCeBIT conference tomorrow, I have to ask (in the words of the Australian tourist campaign, my apologies): "The software is open, the markets are ready - so where the bloody hell are you?"


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Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.


« July 2016