Friday, September 07, 2007

Open Source Macro vs. Micro

When I've written about the inevitable march of Open Source, there are a couple of things I've failed to note, or that I just got wrong. One of those is that I conflated the issues of open technology trends with Open Source. While both are trending upwards, they are certainly not the same. The central premise that I've advanced before still holds - that is, the internet has led to unprecedented downward price pressure on software, thanks to a market flooded with software and software developers, with the added bonus that they can all collaborate with each other in "real time." This serves to accelerate the development of software, creating a vast, fast-moving pipeline of new features over a broad swath of software markets. As opposed to traditional software feature pipelines, this one is almost self-correcting in that the users, developers and user-developers are in constant contact with one another, adjusting the pipeline as it moves along. This part is boring. At the risk of patting myself on the back too much, my assertion has been proven correct many times over.

No, where I got it wrong was in equating open technology and the trends in that direction with Open Source, as defined by the OSI. Sure, this downward price pressure makes the current open source ecosystem viable, but that's not nearly the same as saying that trends towards openness will necessarily result in an Open Source end. The truth is, there is a wide range of points on the open spectrum. As it stands, I've written a great deal about "macro" open trends, but not much about what happens on the "micro" level. With this post, I'll kick off an attempt to do that.

One point on the open spectrum represents the ideal of Free Software, governed by an overt moral ethos, whereby all players are expected to share alike as a means of building a better technology world. At another point lies Open Source, as defined by the OSI, which is kinda-sorta governed by the same moral ethos as Free Software, but they don't really like to talk about it much, for fear of chasing away the very companies they're trying to attract. And at many other points on the open spectrum lie all sorts of technologies that are neither Free Software or Open Source - even if they have adopted a licensing scheme endorsed by both.

These other non-Open Source and non-Free Software technologies develop a degree of openness for all sorts of competitive reasons. Witness, for example, how Microsoft is attacking the RIT market or web services. In both cases, they have had to be open in order to stay competitive. While Microsoft may end up using an Open Source license in some cases, they often do not, but they still want some of the benefits of openness without giving up too much control. In these cases, Microsoft clearly wants to grease the skids of adoption and lower barriers to entry. There are also startups that wish to tap into open trends, with some coming under fire for using the term "Open Source" without using an OSI-compliant license. While they shouldn't use the term Open Source without conforming to the Open Source Definition, they should at least define their work in such a way that differentiates them from traditional enterprise software plays.

Trends vs. Personal Experience

It's one thing to say that the overall trends favor more open technology and Open Source, but what about on an individual level? What do these trends say about individual projects and their chances of success? The answer, it turns out, is not much. All the open trends in the world won't save a bad project. At this level, it's really all about emotional attachment, warm fuzzies, dynamics of the project leadership, and any number of other factors that lead to more people gravitating to community X over community Y. It is within this "micro" sphere that factors such as project personality, license choice, degree of openness, and yes, project ethics come into play.

It is at this level that community leaders will have to consider the audience they want to attract. Does your desired audience often seem paranoid and overly cynical? You'll have to work extra hard to woo them, and you'll probably need to start with the GPL or even a BSD license. That's not the final step, however. To truly give them warm fuzzies, you'll have to consider their cultural priorities. Will they naturally gravitate towards organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation or the Free Software Foundation? If so, you should probably at least consider some form of relationship with them. Making statements about their pet issues wouldn't hurt either - the OOXML debacle presents a great opportunity, as does the recent controversy over what Open Source means. Opining on the tactics of the RIAA and MPAA might help, as well. Of course, these are only suggestions for a certain audience - the ones with laptop stickers that say "corporate websites suck".

I wish I could calculate how much it's worth for a company or project to engage in this sort of cultural activity, but I really can't. It most likely won't help with the enterprise IT buyer, although it's good to remember that they are people, too. Regardless, it's a good rule of thumb that when you're trying to attract an audience, it's good to know what things they care about the most. As has often been noted, it's not enough to open your code and throw it over the wall. I would add that it's also not good enough to woo the audience with just technology - there has to be some force of personality and a willingness to participate in some cultural issues.

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