Back in early March, a company called the Olliance Group held a gathering
of about 100 corporate manager types at a resort in California's wine
country. This "Open Source
" has now produced a 16-page
. It is, indeed, an interesting look at how a certain part
of the corporate world views free software - though, perhaps, not entirely
in the ways its authors intended.
When a self-appointed "think tank" gets together to talk about free
software, one is right to be cautious. When one of that event's top-level
sponsors is Microsoft, an extra degree of nervousness seems appropriate.
The other top-level sponsor, naturally, is Novell; the remainder of the
list is NEC, Unisys, Jasper Soft, OpenLogic, and SugarCRM. Not the most
community-oriented bunch one could have come up with.
LWN readers will be glad to know that "Overall, the CIOs unanimously
agreed that open source is viewed as a viable option in software
procurement decisions for their companies." Once they made that
admission, however, this group started to raise its complaints about open
source, many of which could have come from the 1990's. The first was lack
of support - evidently there still is not enough commercial support for
open source software. The report notes that "this is something the
open source industry will have to address to increase adoption by
companies." One would think that if there is truly a need for more
support these companies would see that need as a business opportunity
rather than an obligation.
Another problem, it seems, is interoperability:
CIOs desire greater interoperability built directly into open
source products. This is an area where proprietary solutions
maintain an advantage over open source, as it is far easier to
integrate and use a suite of proprietary applications that are
guaranteed to interoperate and that have common interfaces that
make it easier for end-users to learn and use the suite.
This is a surprising claim, given that free software developers generally
work toward interoperability with everything. The next claim is just as
Open source lacks compliance with many standards when compared with
proprietary solutions. These standards include universal standards
such as ISO, and industry-specific standards (financial industry
standards, health care industry standards, etc.). It was
acknowledged however, that open source offers some advantages in
the area of technology standards through its openness and
transparency and its ability to facilitate the creation of de facto
standards such as Eclipse and ODF.
The description of OpenDocument
as a "de facto standard" borders on the dishonest. The various reasons why
certain "industry standards" may not be supported as well as others are not
Think tank attendees bemoaned the fact that monetizing open source remains
challenging. Then, there is this problem:
Open source generally
depends on a corps of motivated volunteer developers to develop
features. Often, the features that developers are interested in
working on are different then features that customers are
requesting. For example, Openoffice customers want more Visual
Basic macros to ensure interoperability with Microsoft Office, but
OO developers have not been all that interested in building VB
The idea that a company whose business model depends on better VB support
could devote resources to the creation of that support is not mentioned
anywhere in the report.
Licensing is an issue which is mentioned several times in the report:
Open source licensing is a big source of confusion due to the
number of open source licenses, and a lack of understanding on how
licenses impact business, as well as how licenses interact with one
another. Some licenses require technology to be shared with the
community, other licenses require attribution, and numerous
licenses have different ways of dealing with software
patents. Furthermore, many licenses are incompatible. License
proliferation, confusion and incompatibility are barriers to the
continued growth and adoption of open source.
Clearly, we would be better off with the simplicity, compatibility, and
fairness found in proprietary software licenses. Beyond that:
Think Tank participants bemoaned the lack of a business-friendly
license that adequately addresses issues such as copyright,
patents, attribution and indemnification. While nobody was
suggesting "yet another license" as the solution, the
dissatisfaction by commercial vendors and customers with the
existing licenses was clear.
It would be most enlightening to see what this "business-friendly license"
would involve, but the attendees apparently ran out of time before they
could elaborate on that point.
The GPLv3 draft was also discussed, with a generally negative response.
These issues also point to the need for better governance of open
source contributions. Currently, projects have many different
standards governing code contributions - some communities
vet the code, some require contribution agreements to be signed and
others have no such requirements. The lack of standards and
governance on contributions raises concerns on the source and
legitimacy of code that is incorporated into projects.
This is a claim that needs to be backed up: despite the intense attention
which has been given to the provenance of code in a number of high-profile
projects, the number of real problems has been exceedingly small. If the
attendees of this think tank wish to claim that the code found in free
software projects is less likely to be legitimate than proprietary code,
they need to come up with some evidence to that effect. Sadly, space
constraints appear to have prevented this evidence from being included in
Other worries include a lack of open source developers - their numbers are
not keeping up with the growth of the industry. The fact that quite a few
developers are coming out of universities is considered to be a good thing,
but not without reservations: "However a concern was expressed that
due to the popularity of open source development at universities, graduates
may be lacking key skills such as sound architecture, defining customer
needs and product management." We also hear that open source "tends
to fragment easily," presenting problems for vendors. "Commercial
open source tends to be less fragmented, while 'pure' open source tends to
be more fragmented."
All is not bad, though. Open source offers "flexibility in procurement"
and "flexibility in deployment" where "companies can mix and match open
source software as they please" - despite all of those interoperability and
standards compliance problems we heard about earlier. Faster product
cycles are seen to be good, as are faster bug fixes. Plus:
In addition, there is "perceived" value in the ability to fix or
enhance open source code at the CIOs pleasure even if the vast
majority of user organizations do not .
This "perceived" value is as close as this report ever gets to any sort of
There is plenty more to look at in this report, but perhaps it is best to
finish with this observation:
Finally, OSS and proprietary models continue to converge.
Proprietary companies are taking elements of the open source model,
including faster development cycles, and free, downloadable trial
versions. OSS companies are taking elements of the proprietary
model, by offering support, updates and indemnification.
This report gives no space to the developers of all this software, beyond
complaining that both their numbers and their motivation to implement
Visual Basic macros are insufficient. There is no thought toward
maintaining healthy development and user communities, addressing
problematic legal issues, or contributing back to the community in any
way. These are people who see free software as a well from which they can
draw resources for their businesses, but that software is just a raw
material. They want to repackage and sell that material in as proprietary
a manner as possible.
If this group represents the future of the open source business community,
we could be in real trouble. A look at the list of sponsors given at the
top of this article is cause for comfort, however, as most of the companies
which have found real success with free software chose not to support this
event. So there is reason to believe that this "think tank" is not
representative of the wider business community, that, instead, it's a group
of leaders of businesses who wish they were doing better at
"monetizing" free software.
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