How to Misunderstand the Current Impact of Open Source Software

Posted by tadelste on Feb 16, 2006 8:37 AM EDT; By Tom Adelstein
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Commercial software companies like SAP don't get it about Free or Open Source Software. Neither do Venture Capitalists. The ecosystem doesn't rely on a medium of exchange but first on faith and trust and then monetization. Those concepts don't fly well in a system where decision makers cannot take a long-term approach to business. Look how long it took Linux to get into the mainstream and look at the changes in the industry once it broke through.


Back in 2003, Dave Park of Apple Computer asked me to help the company create a MS Exchange replacement. Dave's team had won some HPC cluster bids and Apple was thinking about an enterprise strategy. On one of my interviews, a hiring manager told me that Apple didn't get open source and that they had a difficult time interfacing with the community.

Apple's team wanted to work with mature projects where an OEM relationship manager could make deals, answer questions and sign contracts. They liked Apache and JBoss. So, Apple simply avoided any project that didn't have someone with such a position.

Apple's theme resonates with most commercial companies attempting to embrace a Free software strategy. Now the self-appointed prophet of the software community, SAP, has declared the fate of the open source movement. Peter Graf, SAP's executive vice president of marketing says rivals OpenMFG, SugarCRM, Compiere and others are too immature to make it.
"We believe that open-source business applications do not have enough time to mature before this huge consolidation wave matures," Graf said.

While I believe Peter Graf is a mature, polished and well behaved executive, he represents a majority of executives who will wind up blind sided by changes in the culture of software. Peter, take a look at Microsoft and consider the FireFox browser and Google. And Microsoft's Wintel hardware platform ends up as the preferred host for Linux. Those are just a couple of examples, others abound.

Undertones from Oracle's Expansion into Open Source?

Looking at motives, I can see what SAP thinks about its main competitor going on an Open Source buying spree. The remarks about open source competitors is a swipe at Oracle. A better swipe may have been that Oracle will wind up closing down its open source investments because they won't know how to incorporate them into their product infrastructure.

That would make more sense than saying open source technology lacks maturity. Many open source projects, Peter, are more mature than SAP. They come from projects started during a time when the Internet was either the province of the US Department of Defense or the National Science Foundation.

Free and open source projects and commercial take-offs put together diverse software to create suites. I have done it creating open source replacements for major back office applications and wound up with a solid platform. Our tweaks were simply to add an installer, an administrative interface and get the various applications talking to each other.

Venture Capitals Don't Get IT

I did dumb things when starting open source companies. I followed the strategy most other Linux companies followed. I allowed an angel into the ownership. He or she would then take off looking for VCs to invest into the company.

With a variety of funding, we wound up with boards of directors who wanted a hands-on approach. They walked back into the programming department, saw a bunch of geeks drinking Mountain Dew and immediately walked out. We had a cluster at such times but not the kind you might consider.

While my teams busied themselves with working on code, I had to handle constant pressure from people who wanted me to build intellectual property portfolios. They didn't want us to offer our server or client as free downloads even though we used Free and open source software to build and bundle our products.

Such companies don't make headlines the way JBoss does. Many open source firms operate like proprietary software firms, unwilling to embrace the model that says give away the software and sell support and services.

They want you to register with them for a thirty day trial. Then they want to come back so they can attempt to close a sale. In my experience, people interested in Free and open source software don't want to follow that path.

Personally, I see a service model as an even better approach than selling proprietary software and frosted widgets. Why? Because customer satisfaction creates loyal customers, referrals and a robust community.

Flat Earth Paradigms

I'm probably leaving myself open to criticism by using the flat earth model to explain shifts. I would use the shift from Newton to Einstein but I know I'll see the same kind of flames. Just in case a reader wants to challenge the fringes of the argument, I have heard it all before, thank you.

Only one to three percent of any population can embrace a paradigm shift. You can preach thinking outside the box and outside the dots but only a small number of people are neurologically capable of doing that. The predisposition of the general population is to allow innovators to innovate and then follow their lead reluctantly.

People invested in a current paradigm typically get along fine with others. They have the support of investors, know how to burn themselves out, and have social skills which allow them to put on the charm at a moment's notice. But they are laggards when it comes to innovation. They need leadership.

Where are We Now?

Today, Free and open source software live far into the adoption curve. The early adopters and early majority have embraced it. With their energy, enthusiasm and persistence open source has already turned the corner to become the dominant model. Look at IBM, Oracle and Sun and you should get you'll be left behind if you think like Peter Graf and executives like him.

The fight is already over, Peter. You just haven't gotten over the brain concussion yet. Stop dissing Linux and get on board. Then use your skill set to charm some open source companies to help you keep your company afloat during the next decade.

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
totally agree jsusanka 0 2,323 Feb 17, 2006 4:04 AM
Traditional Proprietary Software tadelste 1 2,161 Feb 16, 2006 5:53 PM

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