Open source has to 'wear a tie'

Open source will eventually transform how we do business. The benefits and advantage will go to those who are mature enough to understand the opportunity and embrace it.

I recently emceed a Webcast titled "Sustaining Open Source Benefits." The interviewees were Ernest Prabhakar, Apple's Darwin product manager on the Mac OS X team who is responsible for open source, Unix marketing and Xgrid; and Peter Burris, president and chief research officer at Appergy, an early-stage IT services firm.

It was an interesting discussion that explored how to sustain the benefits of open source as options continue to multiply. To put that another way, the range of open source software is climbing up the stack from systems level to full-fledged business-critical applications, as discussed elsewhere in this issue's Open Source special section. The issues of standards, integration and management are profoundly affected by the scale and manner of adoption.

The trade-off that companies face: potentially fantastic bang for the buck vs. risks that lie in how corporate IT adopts and uses open source. Adopters of open source systems must establish practices that discourage "bad" open source behaviors while actively encouraging "good" open source behaviors.

Bad behaviors in the world of application-level open source software include ignoring standards and integration issues. Good behavior is about being, and staying, involved in the public process of development. Corporations that adopt open source applications should participate in the code's evolution and in the open source community in general. It is all about recognizing common purpose - companies have to recognize and act on the opportunity that open source applications offer and address the bigger picture. Ultimately their investment of time and effort will have a far greater return than if they just took and didn't give anything back.

There is a call from corporate IT for the open source community to step up to this demand. As Prabhakar said in the Webcast: "Suddenly open source is realizing it can't just stay out all night partying with its friends. It has to get up in the morning and wear a tie."

Prabhakar also pointed out that corporate IT has a responsibility. For companies to use open source software they have to understand "the business problem [they are] trying to solve and which pieces of the stack are most important," he says.

One comment I found profound was that to sustain the benefits of open source the whole philosophy of open source will have to mature and the way corporations think about the software they use will have to mature.

Now how could we claim that today's corporate IT view of software is immature? An analogy might be going to your doctor with a headache and being told you need to take this drug and you say thanks and off you go, never asking the doctor what he thinks you have or if the medication has any side effects!

Isn't that how we consume packaged, proprietary software? But if we take charge, and develop the skills to manage the problems and understand how to fix them if we have to, we have a real edge. Would that cost more or less than you currently spend on buggy proprietary software and failed implementations?

Moreover, can we give up that idea of first mover advantage - the rarely proven hope that the early adopter of a novel solution gains market advantage? I have seen little evidence that novel technology really gives long- or even medium-term advantage, and in the world of enterprise business, short-term advantage has no strategic value (though the bragging rights can make for good internal political benefit when presented to the uninformed).

Open source eventually will transform how we do business. The benefits and advantage will go to those who are mature enough to understand the opportunity and embrace it.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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