Mikko Puhakka began a challenge on his blog yesterday to list three success factors and three things to avoid when building businesses using free and open source software. He then tagged five of us to jump on. (Mårten Mickos has already responded.) So, here goes based on what I've seen and done:
Three ways open source software can benefit your business:
- Open source software is a great way to enable innovation on your platform. We all know there are shrinking orders of magnitude differences between the number of people that use your software, to the number that report bugs, down to the number that deeply contribute BUT those contributions can be golden in keeping the creativity and ideas flowing, as well as just plain brilliant direct additions to your product space. There is no predictability as to when such contributions arrive, but they won't arrive if you don't make the software available.
- Your community of users is an incredible asset to spread the word. It's not just about people using your software for free and telling other people about it, but rather the fact that developers will start taking it to work and it will sneak in under the floorboards. This is how the PC revolution started. It's why Visual Basic is still huge. It's how the Linux revolution happened. So too with MySQL. And then the CIO discovers it and they need to treat it as a proper product asset just like any other asset on which the business depends.
- Use open source software to rapidly develop new product complements for your solution. It helps amortize the cost of development/support/maintenance across the community of developers/users/customers/partners/competitors. You must, however, be a good community player.
And three "ideas" to avoid when thinking about open source software and your business:
- Just because you published the source code does not make your product any more remarkable to your customers. At the end of the day, you have a business to run, and that means customers need solutions to their problems. A mediocre solution won't become "better", or the wrong solution won't suddenly fit the situation, because the source code is now available.
- Understand your value proposition and your core competency, and choose your license wisely: if your entire core competency that enables your core value proposition to your customers is embodied in the software, DON'T publish it in such a way that you give away the company. I have seen a situation in the security world where the software solution was everything. If they had made the software available under the wrong license, they would have essentially given away their future growth.
- Just because you published the source code does not mean the world is going to work for you for free. It's been a while since we saw this level of naivety with the original Mozilla launch from Netscape, but I'm betting there are still a lot of business people that don't understand open source software economics that still have old ignorant opinions.
So whom to tag next? I'll reach for:
- Michael Tiemann (an early and original player),
- Manel Sarasa, OpenBravo CEO (keeping with growing interesting companies in other parts of the planet meme),
- Jonathan Schwartz (because a big company opinion is always good to have, and Jonathan is nothing if not original in his thinking and his willingness to push the envelop),
- Stephen O'Grady (to get the analyst opinion in early), and
- David Skok (to get an interesting investor opinion)
Okay. I can't stop here. Three more opinions I think would be important to have:
- Javier Soltero, Hyperic CEO (because like Manel he too is in the throws of carefully building a company),
- Taiwen Jiang "D.J." (because China is coming)
- Amy Jiang (because China is coming, and Ubuntu is just plain important)
And Christopher Kuhn at OTRS jumped on board as well.