Open Source Strategies

A blog about open source software and business models, enterprise software, and the opentaps Open Source ERP + CRM Suite.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Finding Einstein

In my last blog, I talked about how the scientific methodology, and by extension open source processes, can help attract superbly talented people. Hence, "the next Einstein."

Now let's get more specific. Whether you are a traditional closed source software vendor, a dual open/proprietary license vendor, or an open source project, these are the things you should do to attract talented developers:
  • Make it possible for as many people as possible to participate in your product's development. This means not just making it possible for them to view the source code but also providing tutorials and documentation to help them work with it.
  • Make it possible for a large group to work together remotely. Ths means setting up code repositories, mailing lists, and issue trackers and then using them. Encourage input and give feedback. Start potentially contentious yet always civilized discussions.
  • Train the group to work asynchronously. Each member of the group should be able to work on a small part of the project independently, without direct supervision or even contact with the rest of group.
  • Encourage contributions of all sizes from the group. Sometimes, great ideas come in small packages (like Einstein's papers on special and general relativity, for example.)
  • Institute rigorous peer review. Don't hold a popularity contest, but instead to encourage input from as many people as possible so your core review or committers' group can find the right answer.
  • Recognize your contributors.
Most of these suggestions are process changes, strategic or organizational in nature. There is one technical hurdle here as well: your code base must be very modular. Otherwise, it would be very difficult for new contributors to get involved, for a diverse group to work remotely and asynchronously, and for you to integrate all those contributions into a stable product.

Through this process, you can unleash the talent and creativity of a community far larger than your own company can bring together.

And you just might find the next Einstein.

Bookmark and Share

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Next Einstein

A hundred years ago (1905), an unknown Swiss patent clerk submitted a paper to the leading physics journal of his day. The clerk had been considered a lazy bum by his college professors and was not considered fit to work in a university.

But this clerk was Albert Einstein. His paper about special relativity fundamentally changed our view of space, time, and the universe.

That's innovation, isn't it?

But what if:
  • Einstein could not access existing research in physics, because it was kept "proprietary" in the universities that produced them;
  • He could not submit his paper because he was not at a prestigious university;
  • There is no way for scientists to work or contribute from remote locations;
  • The leading scientists of the day tried to defend their repuation through deliberate Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt;
  • There was no accepted process in science of reviewing and validating any contributor's work.
Well, I'm sure you wouldn't be reading this blog right now. You'd probably be sitting in a thatch roof cottage somewhere, reading by candlelight. Becaue that was the level of technology before science took hold.

Fortunately for us, though, Einstein and countless other amateur and professional scientists can draw upon openly available knowledge, submit their ideas for peer review, and be accepted by a scientific community.

Open source can do the same thing. It is a derivative of science itself. It creates openly available knowledge, a global community, review by one's peers, and the possibility of being accepted for one's contributions. With this combination, the scientific methodology, with its proven record for innovation, can finally become a force in the software industry.

So it is quite tragic to hear of startups that talk about open source solely as a distribution mechanism and then develop software the old way. It is equally tragic that many projects only accept contributions from their own inner circle, or view other open source projects as "hostiles."

It is encouraging, though, to hear about commercial software vendors adopt and succeed with open source development processes of collaboration and peer review.

After all, don't you want the next Einstein on your team?

Bookmark and Share

Monday, June 13, 2005

Reading Redmond

What does a survey of the Microsoft developer community tell us?

I know we all get too much mail, but here's a magazine everybody should subscribe to: Redmond, "The Independent Voice of the Microsoft Developer Community."

In the current issue: a survey of developers' opinions towards Microsoft. Most Microsoft developers think that Microsoft is good for the industry (88%), but:
  • 63% of respondents responded with a 7 or higher when asked if Microsoft was being arrogant (scale: 0 - 10, 10 being supremely arrogant);
  • 51% said that Microsoft's licensing programs were unfair;
  • 42% said that Linux, Firefox, and open source products were the biggest threat to Microsoft (another 20% said it was existing Microsoft products.)
Open source itself is not a threat to Microsoft, though--it's people's perception of open source alternatives to Microsoft products that is the real threat. More importantly, since Microsoft has always relied on the availability of products on its platform as a competitive advantage, the perception of its developers is especially important.

But open source can also help Microsoft: What if Microsoft started a few open source projects and got its developers involved? This would:
  • Get its developers actively involved in creating a product they would sell.
  • Shift some of the development cost to the developers community (admittedly, maybe not a concern for the world's biggest software company.)
  • Get some potentially very valuable contributions from outside the company.
  • Once and for all, end all those complaints about quality and security with a call to "send in your own patch!"
  • Make the developers feel their opinions matter.
The revenue stream from an open source project might be smaller, but the costs would be smaller too. Microsoft could still make out like bandits by offering support--which MCSD wouldn't want Microsoft to stand behind them?

Finally, Microsoft has thousands of tools and utilities that go into its flagship products which nobody really pays Microsoft for. (Would you switch to Mac OS or Linux if Windows didn't automatically zip/unzip your files?) Why not let somebody else take care of those? And make them feel more involved while you're at it?

Bookmark and Share

Friday, June 03, 2005

The 30 Second Pitch

I had the chance to make a "mock pitch" about open source enterprise applications to five CIO's. Here are their responses to it.

The Pitch

"I'd like to speak with you about how we can solve your problems with enterprise applications, which are: the high cost of acquisition, high cost of implementation and customization, and high cost of maintenance. These problems are exacerbated by the ongoing consolidation in the industry.

"Open source enterprise applications allow you to acquire the software for free, customize it as much as you need because you have full access to the source code, and, at the end of the day, control your own maintenance decisions."

The Responses

CIO #1: You got my attention with the "free" part. How does it work?

A: Well, you download it for free and try it out. If it works for you, you do a pilot. If that proves it can meet all of your needs, you go forward with an implementation. At the end of the day, you can make all your decisions about what to do with it--you can upgrade it when you want and get maintenace and support from whom you want. There's no vendor lock-in because you have the code.

CIO #1: You got my attention. These are definitely benefits we'd want to talk about.

CIO #2: We're really not interested in open source. I don't want to bring code in; I want vendors who provide complete solutions. I want them to take care of the generic layer for my business and my own people to focus on strategic IT that will deliver real value to our company. Open source may help us get to market faster, but I don't want in-house development to take away resources from our strategic initiatives. If there's a large organization supporting an open source solution, then we'd consider it just like anything else.

CIO #3: I'm just really concerned about whether it will be robust and secure enough to meet our needs, and how you as a vendor will survive. We have to prove to our Board that our vendors are financially viable and will be around for a while. If you're selling "free," how can you survive? I'd really need to understand your business model.

CIO #4: We use open source actively in our organization, and it's a major part of our strategy. But the evaluation is not so cut and dry. We'll have to consider it and do our due diligence in the same way as for any other solution. We'd have to study the total cost of ownership, maintenance, and support available. In some cases, we've found that an open source solution actually costs us more than commercial ones. We'd also want to support it in house, since we have a large amount of high quality IT resources available.

CIO #5: We love the idea, and I think it's the future. We don't have enough internal developers and resources for something like it right now, but we want to get there because we want to control our own destiny.

Bookmark and Share

All the Answers

A simple way to help you answer some common questions about open source software.

It seems we're coming back to the same questions over and over again about open source software. Fortunately, there's an easy way to think through them. We start with these observations:
  1. Open source software was enabled by the Internet.
  2. The Internet was originally created to facilitate scientistific research.
  3. Open source, the Internet, and science share many common attributes.
What common attributes are those?
  1. They all revolve around a core of openly available information.
  2. They are highly distributed, scale-free networks of people and organizations.
So, when you get a question like "Can open source _________," just replace "open source" with "science" (or "the Internet") and ask the question again. Usually, the answer is pretty obvious. Let's try a few:

Is open source/science viable?
Yes. And it continues to gain ground.

Can open source/science innovate?
Yes. Just look around you.

Can open source/science exist without commercial rewards?
A qualified yes. Lots of science is done without any direct commercial reward, but if there were no paid professional scientists, then we'd have a lot less science. (Though it wouldn't stop altogether.)

Can open source/science co-exist with commercial rewards?
Yes. Lots of science is sponsored by companies or governments with commercial goals.

How do you making a living doing open source/science?
Most scientists make a living by transferring their scientific knowledge to others--teaching. Some make more money through consulting. Finally, a few make a lot of money by starting companies or creating products from their scientific research.
Organizations do the same thing--teaching, consulting, products/companies.

Can the products of open source/science compete successfully with commercial ones?
Scientific research in itself does not compete with commercial products. Many companies have been successful using the results of scientific research. Chances are, your company is one of these.

What are the motivations for contributing to open source/science?
For individuals: interest, ego, potential career advancement, to name a few.
For companies: it's more efficient to invest in openly available science for basic research and in-house R&D for the commercialization.

Is open source/science a "gift culture" or a "culture of abundance" rather than "culture of scarcity"?
Depends on what you mean by gift. Some scientists solely think of making a contribution to humanity. Most scientists have other motivations, and corporate and government sponsors certainly do. Yet the end result looks like a gift, doesn't it?

Can open source/science succeed without a central organization supporting it?
Yes. In fact, science seems to do better without a central organization. Unexpected contributions play a key role in the advancement of scientific knowledge. Also, the fact that there is no central organization means that science won't fail because of the failure of one company or one government.

How do advancements in open source/science happen?
Incrementally and somewhat randomly. Individuals write papers which are submitted to peer review and accepted into the scientific community. Each paper (usually) makes a small additional contribution to the total knowledge.

Can open source/science exist with a non-reciprocal license/terms?
It seems to have done fine, doesn't it? Even though you can take scientific research, make a commercial product, and never give back to science, science still moves forward at a brisk pace.

Now why don't you try a few of your own?

Bookmark and Share