A Day in the Life

A day in my life. Thoughts on leadership, management, startups, technology, software, concurrent development, etc... Basically the stuff I think about from 10am to 6pm.


Software: Big Business and Open Source

I’ve been trying very hard to understand the value of open source. It seems to me that most open source projects are duds. They fail to generate interest and fade away. But some of them succeed beyond imagination and become the de facto industry standard. Others succeed so stupendously that service companies base their entire business model on them. For programmers who dedicate their time to open source projects, I see open source as a great way to learn, share, and establish a reputation. And for those who get paid to work on open source, it seems like a great way to make a living.

But how can big business benefit from open source? We see big business trying to get into the game. With IBM buying Apache and Oracle trying to buy MySQL. We see Sun releasing Solaris as open source and Microsoft creating an open source group. To many programmers open source is cool and they believe - the way software should be written. There are many bloggers saying open source is the future. I think that open source has its place but that both types of software – closed and open – are needed.

My concern about big businesses buying open source projects is two-fold. First, I'm concerned that sucking open source projects into a large company has the potential to destroy the community and slow down innovation. Like any merger the process needs to be handled very carefully and quite frankly most mergers fail. It seems IBM has done a great job with Apache, but who can say that other mergers will be so successful? My second concern is that people are building stuff for free and then when the project gets sold they get little or no compensation. How long can that model survive? Personally, I would resent putting a lot of time into a project and getting nothing back.

Rather than buy open source projects I would rather see big business donate money to those projects that either directly or indirectly help their business. And then create open source hybrid projects in areas that the big business thinks complement and enhance their product lines. The big companies need to contribute any pieces the open source community can't (i.e. equipment or software) and provide paid personal to fill in the teams. This can create a win-win for everyone.

What this does for big business:

- Cost effectively creates value-add products and services around core product lines.
- Great way to identify potential hires. The companies learn what the programmer's coding style is, how they work on a distributed team, what their work ethics is, communication skills, technical skills, etc... Just great visibility into potential hires.
- Great place for employees to work on stuff that really interests them.
- Cheaply test features and enhancements – if few people want to work on something then it's probably not worth the time.

What programmers get:
- Access to bleeding edge technologies.
- Opportunity to contribute to the future direction of much used products.
- Opportunity to make a name, show-off, and be seen. If this is done right the programmer will be able to name her price and position when looking for work.
- Maybe a little cut???

Microsoft will soon be releasing the source code for Power Toys for Visual Studio and I find myself looking forward to playing with the code. Much of my career has been spent working on development tools and the idea of expanding on an existing product line intrigues me.

Is there a common ground between big business and open source? Any other pros or cons? I'm interested in your thoughts on this.


At May 03, 2006 6:09 PM, Blogger Bill said...

Hi Kim, first thanks for stopping by my place, and for the comment you left.

Open source... I too often wonder about the model and how it can really survive. Recently I began looking into the DotNetNuke project, and from what I've seen, these folks are doing a great job, with a really nice product.

They 'stole' the concept from Microsoft's 'IBuySpy' portal, that was intended as a tool for developers to learn ASP.Net...

The community seems fairly robust, although technical help varies from slim, to none... what is there is often pretty good.

Great post, on an interesting topic, I happen to agree with you, big business will 'kill' the spirit of open source, at least in the projects they acquire.

Fortunately, the scope of possible projects is so broad that I suspect the communities will survive.

At May 04, 2006 12:20 AM, Anonymous Lisa Canter said...

Obviously this is a huge open arena you are touching on. I want to first confess my bias as my life revolves around my husband's company - which is working on such open source endeavor.

At the risk of being blatantly wrong - it seems to me that there are some significant differences between the IBM apache purchase and the oracle MSQL purchase. For starters I am not aware of IBM having a server software market - so buying this product was huge for them. Oracle's positionign and intent are quite different - at best they are buying a part of the market that they don't have - at worst they could control too much and disassemble all that makes msql successful.

So I have listed buying a marketplace and hinted at possible motivations of market dominance - there are other motivations. It is possible that a well set up open source project will also be technically stronger and viable much faster than anything a bigger established company can produce internally. It seems often to be the rule that with establishment - innovation and speed is lost.

In terms of programmers getting or not getting compensated once a program is sold - well I think that is also not so simple. If the sale furthers the product that they have mastered - then they are likely to do well by being viable. It is more likely that programmers feel stress about investing in projects that fail completely than those that get sold.

There is nothing wrong with the donation model you are suggesting - other than it seems to go against the way big company's operate. They would do so if it made business sense - if they had some kind of tie in to the project success. So it more likely they will become major shareholders to secure their interests. In the meantime - all of us stand to benefit by open source - as it can enable technologists to provide needed services at vastly reduced costs.

One important aspect of open source is the belief that there is plenty of money to be had by many - and that opening source code and other actions like this that enable technology rather than stifle and control it - allows for faster progress - which benefits the world. In any given space there will be successes and failures that will suuport and negate this premise.

At May 04, 2006 11:56 AM, Blogger Kim Greenlee said...

I’ve been trying to remember the details of the relationship between IBM and Apache. I was actually working as a consultant at IBM when IBM licensed Apache and I remember all of us being astonished that IBM, of all companies, would consider a relationship with an open source group. I actually did a little more digging into the IBM – Apache deal and apparently the relationship is that of licensing and NOT actually an acquisition. My bad there, I was relying on memory rather than checking the facts.

I totally agree that big business has an innovation problem. I think they also have so many lawyers trying to protect the company from any possible lawsuit, that even if the company wanted to move quickly or be innovative, startups and open source projects are going to always get there faster.

What bothers me the most about big business and open source is that I think they should be separate. I think that if Oracle EVER gets its hands on MySQL, except perhaps as a licensing deal, they will kill it. Maybe not directly although that would not surprise me, but indirectly. One of the problems big companies have is that they try to solve enterprise level problems when most of the customer base has different needs and don’t need or want all the extra bells and whistles.

Here are a couples observations:

1. Big companies are complaining that there aren’t enough qualified engineering candidates in the US.
2. Big companies have innovation problems.
3. Big companies have money.
4. I’ve seen really good engineers who have really crappy looking resumes, so they can’t get past the new HR software.
5. Open source is a great model when it works.

I think big companies should stop trying to purchase open source projects and simply license. I think that if big companies wants to have some control in an open source project, then they could start their own groups and feed and water them to help them grow. Then use those groups to feed their need for trained technical people, not just engineers but also writers and testers.

I’m tired of hearing that there are not enough qualified engineers in the US when I’ve been out on the job market and interviewed with folks who don’t know the relationship between a process and threads, and then had the nerve to tell me that I’m not technical. Open source projects are a way for engineers and companies to by-pass the technical aspects of the interview process and just focus on fit. Which I think would result in a more valid and truthful assessment.

Open source has a lot to offer the technical community and should be encouraged. I just don’t want to see big business try to dominate it because that would be a missed opportunity.


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