I Hate to Say It Takes a Village, But.....

by Ostatic Staff - Mar. 31, 2008

Is the open source community too clubbish for its own good? Several thought pieces I’ve seen recently got me to thinking that this might be the case, at least in terms of relevance to businesses. Dominic Sartorio makes a good case that open sourcers are increasingly balkanizing, instead of pursuing multilateral approaches that could increase adoption and help the growth of commercial open source efforts. Meanwhile, recent comments from Obsidian Systems’ director Anton de Wet suggest that open source needs a whole new breed of business matchmakers to speed adoption from reluctant companies. Is the whole business outreach program in need of an overhaul?

I’ve followed the growth of both open source and commercial software for many years, and one thing I’ve noticed is that the evangelists operate differently in the world of commercial software. When I sit back and remember how Chris Peters, the early product manager and evangelist of Microsoft Excel, or Guy Kawasaki, the long-time Apple evangelist operated, I remember their extreme focus on what business users need. I remember their aggressive moves to communicate with the business community about products. I remember their slavish focus on getting an ease-of-use message across to potential customers.

Peters and Kawasaki were very good listeners. It’s also impossible to put real metrics on the enormous impact they had on the world of software adoption. For example, Chris isn’t one of the more famous people out of Microsoft, but his dogged efforts to improve Excel when Lotus 1-2-3 owned the spreadsheet arena, and communicate the improvements to business users, helped Microsoft topple Lotus’ dominance. That was the key domino that needed to fall for the whole Microsoft Office suite to end up on more than 90 percent of desktops.

When I think of well-known open source evangelists, though, I think of leaders of clubs who are more focused on the righteousness of their clubs than on what business folks really want. Too often, I see stories about Linus Torvalds allegedly calling people morons or interviews with evangelists in the Linux community who seem to refuse to acknowledge that Linux, among other things, needs to offer more compatibility with the proprietary solutions that business folks use. Refusal to acknowledge truths runs rampant in the Linux community, and is a bad business practice.

Perhaps Anton de Wet is right that the open source world needs articulate go-betweens to navigate potential business users toward good, open source solutions, the potential for cost savings, and the like. He calls these “beekeepers.”

Dominic Sartorio calls for partnerships and teamwork as ways to make open source solutions more desirable to businesses. Consider this quote from him: “How many projects are viable and can meet enterprise requirements? Of those that can, how well do they work together and with proprietary technologies, so that larger enterprises can readily make use of them? These numbers are much smaller than they could — and should — be.” I would add that if more partnerships took place, the best evangelists could be chosen from larger pools of people.

I agree with Sartorio that events such as Sun’s $1 billion acquisition of MySQL are great PR for open source. However, to keep business adoption and the commercialization of open source really chugging along, better communication, a higher level of admission of faults, more meaningful partnerships and more need to happen.

Do you think open sourcers need more teamwork and better business-focused evangelists?