Friday, March 24, 2006

Open source? Open schmourse!

I know that I'm probably whacking a hornets nest here but.... here goes:

Health warning: This posting represents a viewpoint that I think I sincerely hold. But it also is a defence of a strategy that has been adopted by the company I work for, so draw your own conclusions: Is it possible for someone to sincerely beleive in their commercial strategy?
Some people I know really take open source geekery very seriously. I've even heard it described as an article of faith - as an integral part of any definition of socialism - as some kind of cornerstone of common ownership. I really don't get it though.

Now, I have to declare an interest here: We (the company I work for) work in a way that has some of the characteristics of open source - we have a programme by which all of our clients are able to share the developments that we do for them - and we specialise in 'joint procurements' - where we find a number of clients who broadly want the same thing, and we manage their projects in a way that they can share costs and benefit from economies of scale - sharing a core system and customising it to meet everyone's desired end-result. Our clients work with us to upgrade their system jointly and to share in the benefits.

But we usually use MS technologies (particularly SQL Server, and IIS).

And we (my company) are - after all - a Co-operative. To adapt Herbert Morrison's claim that "socialism is what Labour governments do", perhaps open source is what co-ops do?
So we feel alright about it on balance ;-)

But I've never understood how something as pragmatic as tech strategy could get mixed up with ideology in this way. I do understand that the general concept that knowledge should be shared at the earliest possible opportunity - and that restricting access to, or hoarding of knowledge is ultimately counter-productive - even anti social.

Bill Thompson has always had a downer, for instance on Digital Rights Management - and as I've got older, I've come to understand why. I understand why the Guardian's open-handed approach to its content is not just socially responsible, its also commercially astute.
I've never believed that 'home taping is killing music' either.

But I don't understand why this worldview translates to technical strategy. Some organisations really would not benefit from having their systems built using open source technologies. Because it's harder to build up a sustainable company developing using these technologies (it self-selects the type of customers that will be promiscuous, and results in an unstable network of suppliers - therefore a lack of suppliers with well-developed procedures or cohesive teams of developers).
And In the sphere of website development, it is not even as portable as some of its advocates claim. So the fashionable preference for this approach results in sites that are actually NOT future proof, ones that really need rebuilding from scratch every few years, and a lack of commercially stable suppliers to meet the needs of any sectors that are smitten with this semi-rational desire. The suppliers regularly go bust, abandoning any warranty they may have signed, and the rebuild that is needed doubles the cost of the project over any medium term that you'd measure (in this case, say, a five-year project lifespan).
Chosing this strategy can give an organisation the worst of all worlds.
One consultant I spoke to said "it is possible to move a content management system developed using open source scripts to another team of developers, but when you do, it arrives in caravans, and the instructions are usually gobbledygook."

Part of me suggests that there is a link to Parkinson's Law here. Some of the most territorial and bureaucratic organisations I've come across have techies that can't be persuaded from open source strategies. They all have really REALLY shit websites by the way...

(n.b. the Wikipedia definition of 'open source' is tagged as follows: "The neutrality of this article or section may be compromised by "weasel words".")


Baz said...

open source works best when the tool you are building needs to be as general as possible - an operating system, a set of development tools, a web server, an adaptation of existing systems (shameless plug) or a store of general knowledge.

In fact, anything that could be counted as either a commodity or generic infrastructure for all.

Making an individual web-site or application open-source normally does not make sense precisely because you are making something specific and you don't benefit from the "many eyes".

And, from a financial point of view, building commodities or infrastructure allows you to recoup your investment across a large potential customer base (it is very possible to make money from open source) but in a narrow field you need to make more from each customer to get your money back - meaning sharing is out of the question.

Baz said...

of course i got the link for my shameless plug wrong - it should be here

Anonymous said...

Here is the correct Wikipedia link to Parkinson's Law.