Last week I spent two very worthwhile days in San Francisco at the Open Source Business Conference. Once again Matt Asay and friends put on a stellar conference. The speakers Matt was able to assemble were impressive and the halls were filled with many of the best thinkers on OSS business issues (in the U.S.). As a platinum sponsor of the show, I was more than pleased with the outcome.
If I had to pick one thing that jumped out at me during the conference, it is the fact that the ideology of open source has persisted and yet has diverged from the reality of how OSS is being used as a business strategy.
Ideology is important. Reaching for a social and business system that is inherently more fair and productive is what we should be doing. Enabling consumers to maximize their choice and vendors to compete based on the merits of their technologies is what should be driving the industry forward. And to an extent, this is what has made OSS so compelling – the potential for delivering on these promises.
Yet these compelling ideas are tied to a software development model. If it were able to stop there – and not layer on business strategy, operational realities, or the implications of existing intellectual property regimes – OSS would probably do a better job of meeting those goals.
I lost count of the number of presenters at the conference who invoked the dreaded “vendor lock-in” as the reason to look at OSS products. After all, the source code is made available for anyone to see or modify. If it is GPL-based code or any other reciprocal license, the code is mandated by the license to be made available for all. Yet none of these companies dealt with the fact that the commercial requirements of customers are driving them to place non-open terms in their support contracts and/or binary licensing agreements. Also, many of the startups I spoke with at the show have proprietary software built to help customers be more successful with OSS technologies. Thus, their customers are going to be waiting for them to fix the bugs and release the next versions.
Maybe vendors do more than just sit around and think of new ways to lock their customers in.
The second thing that has really stuck with me from the conference is the fact that testing of open source solutions is becoming very sexy. I’m not talking about the hyperbole of Linus’ Law – many eyes make all bugs shallow. That has turned out to be more fantasy than fact. I’m referring to the role that people like Spikesource and SourceLabs are playing. Also, systems integrators like Optaros are going to gain more celebrity as they are able to define tested solution sets for their customers.
Integration is the key to successful enterprise-class solutions. Large IT shops want to decrease complexity, manage risk, and reduce cost. I know it sounds like I am advocating hegemony – I’m not though. The best SIs are the ones who can take disparate components and tie them together into compelling solutions for their customers. Microsoft has put its efforts into bringing the integration into the solution stack itself, but that is not by any means the only way to do it (we think it is the most efficient way – but I know that’s not surprising).
For years, the focus has been on the romantic image of the OSS dev, sitting in his home office (or at some uber-hip wireless hotspot) hacking out some really groovy new function or feature. I think that music is going to start playing for the guy who knows how to build really cool test harnesses.
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