Disruptive Effects of Open Source
I participated in a panel on the “Disruptive Effects of Open Source” at the Future World Symposium which discussed how OSS is impacting the software world, the degree of that change and the limitations.
The conference was held by the NMI whose charter is to represent and usher the interests of the electronics industry in the UK. It may not be something you think about on a daily basis but the UK has a pretty successful electronics sector with companies like ARM, Freescale, Imagination and others. Now that our political masters have got over their finance kick perhaps they’ll focus more attention on encouraging these technology sectors!
Anyway, with a electronics industry audience I was concerned to make my comments interesting and relevant. As became clear from some of the other presentations electronics companies face incredible opportunities where the number of devices and connectivity options between them are proliferating. However, there are also significant challenges as sectors converge with each other, and international competition hots up.
Glyn Moody chaired the discussion and my initial comments were to explain that Open Source is not a business model. Rather, it is a development and licensing model which brings many impacts and there are a variety of permutations for why you might use OSS or build a product using OSS. For example, in some cases organisations collaborate through OSS because there’s no value in differentiation, a “shared investment” model: a good example is Web 2.0 companies who collaborate to improve their infrastructure software. Another area is where you want to speed up the velocity of innovation. The value of OSS is that it can create a community of contributors and advocates: a good example is the web browser where Firefox has driven significant direct and spin-off innovation.
I wanted to make sure that the audience was clear that open software is not inimitable with proprietary or mixed solutions. Since I was addressing an audience that might not know Open Source well, and whose livelihoods depend on Intellectual Property (IP) I wanted to make sure that they were clear that OSS values this just as much. Furthermore, that OSS should be a key part of any technology companies strategy as it’s a leveller of competition.
We then talked about the various rights and responsibilities that working with OSS confers, the value and opportunities around communities. I sometimes feel that in those circumstances it can all seem too much if you go from the idea of a closed ecosystem immediately to the idea of developers being able to download any piece of code from the Internet and use it. So I focused my comments on the value of vendors acting as mediators between the open-ended nature of Open Source projects and the more controlled world of a procurement policy. I’m certainly not unbiased here, but a vendor can provide lots of value by mediating this world, helping customers to navigate it, providing legal and technical support – along with the protections and reassurance that companies like to have. I wanted to make sure the audience was clear that it doesn’t have to be the “wild west” when using OSS.
In the final section the questions explored the range, limitations and future directions for Open Source. Since we were getting close to lunch I wanted to provoke a reaction. My main statement was that eventually there will be a major Open Source solution and vendor in every technology segment. The direction of Linux over the previous ten years shows the manner in which OSS expands across all niches and we can see the impact it’s had in other segments such as databases and today we see it in mobile phones. And that in any segment where there is a sufficiently wide interest in sharing the cost of development, increasing the speed of innovation through a community or rebooting the competition then OSS would eventually take place. Consequently, I suggested that if there wasn’t an OSS competitor then a company should consider getting first mover advantage before their competitors do
I thought I’d come up with a controversial answer to the question and was quite surprised there wasn’t a strong reaction from the audience. Perhaps they considered me too tainted as an OSS vendor.
So there you go, I managed to learn something about the electronics industry and just about avoided telling them that they should Open Source everything immediately! I’m sure they’ll invite me again next year.