Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Open Source Dilemma

It is easy to dismiss Free Software as the dabblings of a bunch of geeks on the fringe. Open Source software is another matter. Open Source is about business, making a profit and in the end, economic domination.

There are many motives for an enterprise adopting the Open Source model. For a small startup company, Open Source can be about creating a cheap and effective distribution channel. If you look at the income statement of a typical software company, sales and marketing is the single largest expense, and most of that money goes to the inefficient one-on-one process of a salesmen persuading a customer to spend a lot of money on the software package. As a Venture Capitalist might say, it is a process that is difficult to scale.

On the other hand, Open Source is like try before you buy. The game is to persuade as many people to download the product and try it out as is possible. Only after they have tried it out, found that it works and go to put it into production, do they discover that there are plenty of good reasons why they should pay for the product, or at least for support. Selling is a subtle job of positioning, partnering with other successful Open Source products and plain old getting the word out. Even so, the Open Source product is cheaper than the conventional software package because you do not have to pay the odious salesman their hefty whack.

A more interesting game is played by large companies who use Open Source for economic warfare. Open source can be used to weaken a competitor by destroying their economic value. It is a game that the larger, stronger, more diversified and aggressive company wins. A well known example, although not exactly open source is the Microsoft and Netscape saga. Netscape's principal product was a browser that they were selling for a modest sum. Microsoft killed the market for browsers by giving away their Internet Explorer with the operating system.

Interestingly enough, as a part of their war on Netscape, Microsoft opened up the source of Internet Explorer, and licensed it relatively cheaply to companies that wanted to build their own browser based product. When Netscape looked at their code, they discovered that they could not respond. Game and set to Microsoft, however it is not clear whether the match is over yet. Netscape rewrote their code and it has been released as the Open Source Mozilla browser. With security problems swirling around Internet Explorer, Mozilla has a chance of making a comeback.

IBM is an example of a big company that is actively supporting a number of Open Source initiatives for various purposes. IBM has helped develop Linux. One reason is that Linux can extend the life of the mainframe. However, a side effect is the Linux has developed to the point where it is getting to be a contender for the desktop, and thus capable of sucking some of the air out of Microsoft's lungs.

Another IBM product, Websphere is connected with the Apache Open Source web server, and IBM continues to donate software to the Apache Foundation. IBM also took an also ran development environment and turned it into the leading IDE by making it Open Source. IBM sells hardware and services as well as software, so giving away a little software to help grease the skids for an integrated sale of hardware, software and services is an excellent tactic. In fact, giving away the software to sell the hardware was standard operating procedure at IBM for many years.

So now we come to the Open Source dilemma. The first thing is to realize is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Any software that you select is going to cost you money, and the cost of the software license is only part of the total cost. You need to pay for the implementation of the software and the hardware that it runs on. You need to train staff to manage and use the software, and you need staff to keep it running.

Thus, you are making an investment by selecting software package even if the package itself is free, and you need to protect that investment. If you do not have a relationship with the entity that produces the software, you do not have any control, and the investment is at risk. There are many types of relationship that you could have, offering code or other services in return, but the easiest way to have a relationship is to pay for it.

The core of the dilemma is that by choosing an Open Source system you may be getting involved in a battle of the giants. In any battle there is going to be a winner and a loser and while the battle is going on, anyone near the field of battle risks being trampled. When selecting Open Source software you need to do due diligence, looking not only at the resources and stability of the producers of the package, but also their motives and the likelihood that they will prevail.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

R Unmasked

We were midway through the presentation on R when I got it. R is a programming language for doing statistics and we were looking at a code sample. I said "R is just APL without the Greek symbols", and that is what it is! In practice there is a language called J that really is APL without the Greek symbols, but R is close enough.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

DRM Undercurrents

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is heating up to the point where it is now starting to bubble. I have already talked about Laurence Lessig. In the latest Dr. Dobbs, Jerry Pournelle worries about losing his livelihood if DRM is not enforced. Cringely has written a couple of uncharacteristically paranoid columns about Microsoft and DRM.

One Cringely column is about how Microsoft wants to control USB so that information cannot escape from PCs. There are so many other ways that information can leak out of a PC, including CD and DVD writers, and the network connection, that controlling the USB does not seem interesting even if it can be done. On the other hand, the column on Microsoft security is more interesting as it shows one direction that Microsoft could be headed with its next version of the Windows.

The column suggests that Microsoft with its new focus on security is looking to lock down everything on the PC so that content providers can safely distribute their digital goods on Microsoft Windows and get their pound of flesh. Other rumors about Microsoft support this view, and Ballmer himself went out and started dissing the iPod as the music thief's dream. I have always thought of Ballmer as a clown, and this behavior is typical.

When Steve Jobs conceived the iPod, he knew that he had to set up a reasonable system that would satisfy and reassure both the people who want to sell music and the people who want to buy music. So Apple devised their system and went out and sold it to the music labels. For taking this initiative and doing it right, he has earned success and a lot of respect. On the other hand, Microsoft is in too much of a hurry and they have adopted the bully and bluster of their CEO, a style that is guaranteed leave them friendless.

Microsoft is not the only game in town. If they come out with a platform that is so tied up in DRM that it is annoying and difficult to use, they could loose their entire franchise.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

A Long Tale

The Long Tail seems to be everywhere. Tonight at the SDForum Emerging Technology SIG, we had a panel discussion on Music and Metadata, inspired by the Long Tail. At the same time Scott Rosenberg 's blog has some musings on blogs and what constitutes a successful blog, also inspired by the Long Tail.

While all this collaborative filtering stuff is interesting, I wonder how useful it really is. For example, my Netflix queue is at least 2 years long, and seems to grow every time I look at it. However they are always badgering me to rate movies so that they can recommend more. Well I have news for Netflix, I do not need any recommendations, I already have enough to keep them profitable for some time to come.