Open Source Business Conference Retrospective

Along with the Free and Open Source Developers European Meeting, the Open Source Business Conference was one of the two best conferences I’ve been to recently (I generally hate conferences). I got my geek on at: FOSDEM and actually enjoyed and learned from the technical sessions. Where OSBC is at the other end of the spectrum with business sessions, so I got my suit on. I missed the second day’s keynotes and Roy Russo’s panel where he said there was no money in open source (there isn’t for Loopfuse). The first day’s keynotes were not great (I hate most keynotes). I wanted to throw my coffee cup at Ron Hovsepian, the CEO of Novell. He said the community was upset because they partnered with Microsoft. Funny, I thought it was because they gave some credibility to Microsoft’s yet to be explained Linux patent innuendo.

On the other hand, some of the sessions were great and you truly got a feeling as to where things are going. It seemed to me that Matt Asay and the VCs had all decided that the theme would be “Open Source Purity is dead and ‘Open Core’ is the new black”. Open Core was their name for having an open source “community edition” which you extend and sell proprietary licenses to. The problem I had was that some of them (excluding Matt Asay), rather than act like grownups, chose ridicule of “the opposition” as their method of pushing this message. Worse, there aren’t even just two sides to this as they mis-characterized.

Dave Rosenberg during the “Open-Core Licensing: The New Business Model Standard for Commercial Software” session actually characterized anyone that disagrees as a crybaby with a matching picture slide. A SrVP from a large bank (not Tim Golden), a VP from another open source services company and I formed the “wait aren’t you begging the question?” part of the audience. Our question was really “if you go too far with this won’t you napalm the open source value proposition?”. The best answer was “it will work great if you do it right”. The harder part of that session was listening to Dave bring JBoss up repeatedly while explaining a history of JBoss that I never experienced (and I was there during the LLC). The weird part was hearing that Matt Quinlan, a DIEHARD Windows user being held up as the “converted to open core” former patron saint of Open Soruce purity. Quinlan now works for LoopFuse with Roy Russo, on a product which is clearly not Open Source. BTW Quinlan, is a pal, it was just an odd and inaccurate characterization.

And let me be very clear. I do not personally think EVERYTHING necessarily should be open source. I’m even dubious that there is a sustainable way to fund certain types of software as open source. I personally have no problem with a proprietary edition for say integration with SAP (a very expensive proprietary product) among other things. However, the crippleware and what Marc Fleury once called “children’s editions” are another story. If you wall the community off and customers away from the community, the overall value proposition vs proprietary software becomes nearly 0. In fact I cease to see a distinction. On the other hand, sustainable open source requires revenue in one form or another. Very few projects are funded on love alone. Someone is paying somehow. Revenue/funding takes these forms: individuals (which limits marketing, commercial adoption, etc) are getting paid directly, individuals are ripping off their boss (spending time on pet projects instead of what they’re paid to do these are a threat to their boss and the projects), companies are sponsoring a little time in their interest space (disjointed architecture), and commercial Open Source. Honestly, I think only the latter two are truly sustainable over a long period of time. There are exceptions in the first category of course (time will tell if they are truly sustainable).

Maybe I misread it, but meanwhile the VCs seemed to be saying that maybe their time in Open Source is coming to an end. They’re looking for something new for summer. They never really “got” open source and I have to say that the value of open source to any single company involved in its production, beyond the adoption phase, is up for question. The real value is as a whole ecosystem and to the developers and users of open source. If you’re in this for a short term gain at a single company, letting the enemy into your underwear drawer, along with your friends, isn’t going to seem like a very good idea. So the VCs are looking to misuse the term “Open Source” to market things that are very questionably so in order to achieve short term gains, doing us all a fair amount of damage — THEN move on to the next fad. This is not to say that open source is a fad, but that the fad phase is coming to an end.

The tone of the conference is “everything is great for us” or “what recession?” and indeed that is usually my message. It is however a simplification. For my company, business is up, but so is complexity and even our longer-term customers just got a lot more demanding. I think this is probably common, you can get a lot of AR in this period and choke to death on your own unrealized profits, but “cash is king”.

I noticed the VCs have no real thumb on a future in open source. In the panel after the first day’s keynote, when I challenged “what about the consumer message” they brought up a remote control and talked a little bit about a remote control: “I buy anything shiny and black”. Later in “After Wall Street’s Chernobyl: Funding Open Source through the Downturn” one even said “the consumer doesn’t care at all about open source” which I partially agree with. We haven’t had a consumer or end user Open Source message. This is something that I’m working on at the Open Source Initiative as part of the the Open Source Education project. We need a consumer message and to educate both the public and the youth (in and out of computer science programs) as to what open source is and why they care.

What was great about FOSDEM was that the technical sessions were actually interesting, but OSBC is about meeting key leaders in the industry, getting some intelligence on where the men behind the curtain are taking us, and meeting potential partners. OSBC for me exposed a growing rift between the Open Source business types and VCs vs Open Source users and customers. The very things that Tim Golden (Bank of America) and Carol Rizzo (formerly Kaiser Permanente) among others mentioned in “The Elimination of Operational Risk and Maximization of Operational Efficiency in the Enterprise: The Audacity of Open Source Hope” as key reasons for using and adopting Open Source were the very things being knocked down in “Open Core” in order to make room for a wall.

In conclusion, if you have a travel budget then get your geek on at FOSDEM and then get your suit on at OSBC and not everything being advertised as Open Source is actually Open Source. Look for the Open Source value proposition (more later) to be under attack. Open source is a long term value proposition and ecosystem which is more valuable when looked at as a whole rather than as an individual product or project.

UPDATE: Great post by Matt Asay questioning whether we’re heading in this direction.

UPDATE: Sergio Montoro’s comments (in Spanish / en Español) (partial English translation). Sergio is one of the developers of Hipergate, a Customer Relationship Management application.