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Red Herring on Open Source

By eann in News
Fri Jul 14, 2000 at 08:01:02 AM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

The August 2000 paper edition of Red Herring magazine has an expansive article by Peter Rojas about the idea of open source. It has some excellent analysis mixed with some seriously slow parts; on the whole it's an interesting treatment of the phenonmenon. Techie-minded advocates need to know what business-minded people are seeing about their cause, and adjust their strategies accordingly. Unfortunately, there seems to be more than a month lag in getting stories onto their web site, so if you want more than my summary below, you'll have to go buy your own dead trees.

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The article is primarily a presentation of open source as a business strategy. It's subtitled "Open Source isn't for everyone. But it can work wonders when companies know what they're doing." The first full page is about HP's decision to open E-speak.

Okay. That's not too bad. It looks like HP's trying to leverage this pseudo-freedom to create a de facto standard. It may not be what some consider morally ideal, but it's a bigger step in the right direction than some other companies have taken. Rojas then goes on to talk about VA Linux and Collab.net setting up SourceForge.com and SourceXchange, "to host open-source projects, allowing companies to effectively outsource the management of their open-source projects." Why would companies care about that? Because "upstarts like Apache and Sendmail can gain such phenomenal market share...without spending any significant money on marketing, advertising, or research and development."

What? Yeah, Apache grew out of NCSA's old web server; compared to, say, IBM, sure, they're toddlers. But Sendmail as a piece of software has been around for quite a while longer. I'd hardly call them "upstarts".

The next bit is a little disturbing, too. Rojas quotes ESR: "There is a component of idealism, but this shift in thinking is mainly due to fear, a fear that your competition will use the greater efficiency of the open-source model to produce better software, much faster than you ever could."

Pay attention, folks. That's important. Open source is not just an idealistic dream, it's a business strategy. And if your company doesn't use it, your competitor(s) will. This is boss-think--flawed, but that's never stopped 'em before. The obvious problem with this has been discussed here at K5 a couple times already. Even people who work without direct monetary compensation because they love the product don't like to be taken for granted. Rojas doesn't deal with the issue until much later. He goes on for another few paragraphs that look like they were lifted from a wordier draft of "the Cathedral and the Bazaar".

The Internet has only sped up the pace of collaboration. Now with email, FTP servers, discussion boards, and Web sites dedicated to specific projects, participation is easy, no matter where you are. Programmers can now send in their code, notify others about bugs, and download the latest versions of the program instantaneously.

*dingdingding* Give the man a cookie!

When I read that paragraph is when I knew I had to post this. I can't even express how it disturbs me to see something written like email, FTP, and newsgroups are hot new technologies. Especially in a publication that's intended for people on the business end of technology. Doubly so in an article about what I consider to be such an important idea to convey accurately and clearly to those kinds of people. Someone, somewhere along the editorial food chain, should've caught this.

Blah, blah, blah. More on VA's consulting services. More on how to make money off open source software (short version: sell support like Cobalt or convenience like Red Hat).

Another mini-case study: WapIT used open source to establish their de facto standard.

Back to VA for awhile; fun catchphrase: ICO => "Initial Code Offering".

Segue to "Rob Malda, founder of the programmer news site Slashdot.org", who explained that Mozilla development started very slow because the code was such a mess.

"[P]rogrammer news site". *snicker*

Blah, blah, blah, spend the better part of a full page of text trying to explain copyright, licenses, OSI, OSD, GPL, LGPL, NPL, MPL, segue back to sluggish Netscape and picking the wrong license hurt them, too--it made them look like they were trying to take advantage of the community.

Um, yeah. That's bad. It's also the only time that particular (and fairly common) gripe about companies opening their code is mentioned in six dense pages of text. Rojas never once mentions the negative PR from "abandonware".

Next, if you're going to open the source of something, be sure someone clueful is at the helm. Linux would've flopped without its "benevolent dictator" Linus Torvalds.


Back to VA for a minute, still consulting on how to do it right. Mr. Malda reminds us that volunteers will go away if the company ignores them long enough.

Managed properly, with the needs of the community in mind, the controlled chaos of an open-source project can create not just impressive software, but amazing business opportunities as well.

Directed properly, a community of technologists can help steer business discussions of open source the right direction. Some of my comments may have been a little too snide; the article does show some depth of understanding, it just fails to present it at a consistent level. What would we have said instead?


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Red Herring on Open Source | 6 comments (3 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
I was saying something similar just today! (4.00 / 1) (#1)
by gandalf_grey on Fri Jul 14, 2000 at 12:50:26 AM EST

Agreed. At least the portion regarding "if your business isn't doing an open-source business practice, your competitors will". In my company, as with most I'd assume, there's a lot of inertia in moving people to thinking outside the corporate/marketing business model. People have a hard time thinking that it's sometimes an advantage to "give away" valuable information and knowledge, and that it might insight new developments. Not just code, but information of all kinds. In the "information age", information is considered valuable... and it is. But lets not market and capitalize ourselves to death for the sake of a dollar. A better idea may come from sharing than selling.

warmed-over communism (2.00 / 2) (#4)
by Anonymous Hero on Fri Jul 14, 2000 at 02:11:13 AM EST

Okay, I don't think I'm alone when I say that I choose my Operating System and Applications based on functionality, ease of use, and stability and I couldn't care less what the license is. All this rhetoric about free software is fine and dandy, but in the real world programmers have to eat, pay rent/mortgage, support a family, and so on.

And don't give me that line about "selling support" -- I think we all know that is a load of crap.

  1. If it needs that much support, it's a bad product. [1]
  2. Support is not profitable (at least not in any of the companies I've worked for).
The only reason the Red Hat stays afloat is because of the good economy and the overpriced "training courses" they offer. On the other hand, I'm not even sure they are going to stay in business -- their stock sure has crashed.

If someone wants to write a program and give it away, hey, that's great. I have no problem with that. But we should also respect the programmer who works for a living and sells his or her software. Writing good software is hard work and should be rewarded. It's time to turn away from whining jobless losers like RMS and ESR who seem to be unable to pass up the opportunity to attack commercial software developers.

Basically, I'm tired of the politics of Linux, and would rather hear discussions about technology and culture (of any OS, and under any license). Thus the -1 vote.

1. As one of the KDE developers suggested (sorry I can't recall his name right now), Free Software may encourage overly complex and poor products in the future, just so it's authors can offer "support" services.

The real change (none / 0) (#6)
by baka_boy on Mon Jul 17, 2000 at 02:56:07 PM EST

I can't believe that very few, if any, of these vaunted business analysts seem to have pick up on the most fundanmental change in business and tech that the "rise" of open source hints at: software is rapidly becoming a commodity. This is nothing new, folks; technologies always have their brief flare of proprietary, closed development amongst a close 'priesthood' -- look at printing, electricity, literacy, etc.

In the Western first-world countries, at least (and probably many of the others, soon) most anyone with decent logical reasoning and an understanding of a Latin-derived language can pick up programming in a handful of languages. That is not to say that soon everyone will write their own software. However, there's no reason that school kids won't be learning the basics of HTML/XML or Python (or the +5 yr. equivalents) around the same time they're reading challenging works of fiction, or learning to play a musical instrument.

Truly great, innovative code requires inspiration and intelligence. Solid, reliable, and usable workhorse software (like the best open source tools I can think of) simply demands time, attention, and organization. Slowly, people are beginning to realize this, and once it has caught on fully, the 'priesthood', at least as popular culture currently perceives them, will be disbarred.

Which brings me back to my intended point: since the code itself will be a commodity, the services that businesses will seek out will be support, consulting, minor customization, etc. The skilled will work like car mechanics or tax advisors: doing something that can be learned my most, perhaps slightly more effectively, but primarily for convenience's sake.

To make an analogy to an older industry: popular authors don't make money by locking their words in a filing cabinet and selling them to the few people willing to pay $500 a copy; they rake it in by publishing often, being fairly consistent, and becoming as widely known as possible. However, in the early days of (at least Western) literacy and writing, the few scribes and scholars in a given area were the favorites of the courts and wealthy, but might never share their ideas with more than a handful of patrons or peers.

To end with a question, where does this end us? (Assuming, of course, that most readers of K5 will be members of the current tech-scribe clan.) Do we attempt to obfuscate and complicate the workings of these machines to hold onto our precious status a while longer? Or do we throw open the doors and windows, and see if maybe those middle school kids just learning to squeak out middle C on the clarinet can teach us a thing or two about coding that sort algorithm?

Red Herring on Open Source | 6 comments (3 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
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