Open Source and Sustainability, Updated

Sam Folk-Williams recently blogged a response to an earlier blog posting I had written about Open Source and Sustainability. Over the past few months I’ve been having more and more discussions about this topic with IT executives, and I have been meaning to write and update on the latest. Sam’s posting provides the perfect prompt and background.

Last month I was invited to give a seminar about the theory and practice of open source software in Canada. After I had made the majority of my presentation and it was fairly clear that Open Source was a great strategy for increasing value, lowering costs, igniting innovation, etc., I was asked the question “what other areas, beyond software, do you believe can benefit from the application of open source ideas?” It’s a question that has come up since the beginning, when dismissive skeptics would respond to my open source enthusiasm by asking “so, should GM give away their cars for free? How would they make any money?!” But the questioner was far more earnest than that–he was genuinely interested in knowing the answer.

Because the seminar was less than a month before the US Elections, I glibly said “the principles of transparency and individual freedom might translate well to democratic campaigns in representative democracies like the US”. (And indeed it turned out better than I could have hoped when Open Source was explicitly credited as a model for running and winning a US presidential election campaign.) Then I more earnestly explained that I was quite proud that Open Source principles had inspired the principles of the Conservation Commons and other communities sharing scientific knowledge. But then I said “You know, as President of the OSI I’ve been asked that question by a lot of people in a lot of industries, some more analogous to open source software than others, but the question that’s interesting me a lot lately is ‘What can open source learn from other, longer established fields?’”. And to answer my own question, I explained that I was finding the most fertile field I had found were those that centered around sustainability.

To my delight, the questioner smiled broadly and gave me a great compliment. He told me that his organization, and many others that he respected, were establishing an executive-level sustainability officer. He agreed that conventional measures of productivity, efficiency, strategic positioning, etc., were all well and good, but superficial without considering the intrinsic question of sustainability. And that point seems to be abundantly clear from Sam’s interactions with Cisco’s Director of Sustainable Development as well.

More so than ever, it seems that merely beating the competition today, or satisfying the customer today, is just the wrong way of looking at the problem. Look at the ruins of a US economy based on writing profitable but questionable mortgages, or building impressive but inefficient automobiles. We need to think longer-term. We need to ask the question “if I win the game for the next 20 quarters (five years), will I still be alive to play the 21st?”. This seems to be the question that too many in Corporate America and elsewhere have conveniently ignored or neglected to ask. Now millions of investors and millions of taxpayers are all paying a heavy price.

Let us bring the question of sustainability back to open source in light of the increasing number of companies who profess an open source strategy while vending competitive proprietary software. With worldwide IT spending set to surpass $3.4 trillion USD in 2008 and open source software and services revenue well less than 1% of that figure, one may well ask the question “why on earth are proprietary software companies talking so much about the need to reduce cost of open source solutions?” Indeed, when viewed through the lens of sustainability it’s pretty clear that those who think short-term and say “Hey! I can save 50% on less than 1% of my IT spend if I buy from these vendors who have locked me in to their platform” are never going to achieve the larger promise of open source software. Those who do take the long view are going say “Wow! After one year, three years, five years, not only did I save 80% of my IT budget, but we’ve transformed our business and transformed our industry by harnessing user-driven innovation. Our customers are happier, we have more of them, and most importantly, we are able to profit by keeping more of the proprietary dollar we earn and sending less of it to the vendors who once held us hostage.” Those in IT who think about sustainability will realize that the 1% they are spending on open source technologies today is the only way they are going to make progress addressing the 99% that’s not sustainable due to proprietary software practices.