The State of Open Source

Stephen O’Grady has a great post analysing where the open source software movement is in the Startup, Growth, Maturity or Decline model.

Why would commercial organizations willingly cede the fruits of their labor to a market that might include their competitors? Because for software that is non-differentiating, that is not a competitive advantage – which for most non-technology firms is virtually all of their software – it will cost more over the longer term to author software privately than it would publicly. Facebook and Twitter demonstrate this quite adequately (coverage), true, but it’s not just the web firms. We see it when a hosting company (Rackspace) and space agency (NASA) jointly author a cloud computing stack that neither intends to create a software sales business around. We see it when Lockheed Martin launches an open source social networking project. And so on.

None of these can be characterized as decisions driven by idealism or emotion; they are simply the most logical means of developing software for companies that aren’t in the business of selling software. Make no mistake: we’re seeing a resurgence of roll your own software (coverage). The difference this time around is that by sharing the code developed internally as open source, it becomes possible to amortize the development costs across multiple organizations with similar needs. Worst case, you have the opportunity to lower your costs of talent acquisition; this, presumably, is one of the justifications for Google sharing details on its MapReduce and Pregel processing approaches.

Open source is something I’ve been reading and thinking about a lot recently and the more you dig into it, the more complicated it can get.

With government policy focusing more and more on using open source solutions, I wonder whether the understanding is there amongst those making buying decisions about the various licenses and business models that exist. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

It does strike me though that it is easy for a supplier to claim to provide an open source solution when in fact they don’t.

The advantages of open sourcing for both the supplier and customer, as Stephen notes in his post, are huge. But this really isn’t as simple as just saying that open source software is cheaper, or indeed ‘open’- there are lots of factors here and the implications of taking decisions around open source are potentially significant.

More on this in future posts.

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Dave Briggs

I'm an experienced senior manager in digital and ICT, looking for interim engagements to modernise technology teams to help organisations transform.

2 thoughts on “The State of Open Source”

  1. Hi Dave – belatedly catching up with some reading here…

    Thanks for this post – I think its extremely important that we raise the level of debate around open source rather than it becoming a de facto standard for the public sector without people really understanding what it means.

    I think that open source code can work incredibly well in the right setting but you need to make sure that there is enough energy to maintain it over time. Without that energy you need to fall back on paying people to do stuff….

    I link this your comments earlier this week about the need for the right skills to be present in government to be able to use these tools and I would add to this the need for the skills to be in the hands of people who actually understand what the organisation is trying to achieve otherwise you can end up back in the days where the IT department is running the website and no-one can find anything on it because its designed for a technical brain.

    I’d like to see teams emerge which are multi-functional – bringing together service knowledge with technical skills and also including someone who can look at the sustainability of a project. The tech skills can then be provided from inside or outside of the organisations but will be balanced by some relevant knowledge. Sustainability is still an issue but at least knowledge is shared and you are increasing the technical exposure of the people who know what they want to achieve.

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