Open Source Innovation

Steve Hamm has an interesting article at Business Week on new innovation within Open Source. He implies that innovation has been a missing ingredient in ensuring Open Sources wider adoption. Steve goes on to cite the cases of Zimbra-eMail Server, Flock-social browser, and Scalix-another eMail server as examples of a recent flowering of innovation within Open Source. Bzzzt- got that one wrong.

I tried to post a response but the Business Week site hiccupped – so I post it here.

Steve has inadvertently bitten big on the Microsoft, SAP and other vested IT vendors hook on Open Source and innovation. The simple fact of the matter is that Flock, Scalix, and Zimbra are just three in a huge long line of innovators in the Open Source arena. For starters, think Wikipedia, PHP, andXML. The latter is very telling. XML has become the driver for business and data integration vital to organizations still info-constipated after 50 years with proprietary information systems. Most of the major breakthrough innovations for XML were done under the Open Source tent. Only in the post 2000 land-rush to get XML positioning, have private major IT vendors picked up and added to the XML software portfolio particulary in Web Services. But the essential point is that Open Source has long been exactly that – a source of IT innovations.

Part of the reason for that is that Open Source is the only avenue available for software innovators whose ideas dont meet VC capitalists vision where the market is going or dont have a sufficient risk-reward payoff. The risk-reward payoff is ever more important as the industry consolidates into major players and Microsoft. And now that Microsoft is appropriating the whole software market to itself asRedmond enters more markets with aggressive bundling (think BI, ERP, ECM) and below cost pricing – see Business Weeks own take on Microsofts efforts to wipe out Sony and Nintendo from the game market. The result has been that for the past 7-9 years, any software venture that smacks of any competition with Microsoft, VCs tend to back away from. So Open Source is a survival strategy for software innovators.

But many regard Open Source as do gooders – not viable businesses. Au contraire. Open Source are businesses working to thrive on a business model that does not leave them vulnerable to predatory pricing. The BI Stack free-giveaway from Microsoft is an example. This slash and burn pricing has been embraced to an extent by IBM and Oracle leaving innovators in the BI market two options: 1)become a VAR to one or more of the bigboys and innovate with add-ons or 2)become Open Source partly like Actuate or fully like Pentaho. The idea is not only to protect yourself from predatory pricing but also to win customers by innovation, service and support Revenues are vital – and revenues as Software as a Service and its subscription model takes hold are becoming much more viable.

The key point that Steve Hamm seems to be making is that Open Source is only just now doing well enough to innovate. But innovation has long been Open Sources ticket to success and a lot more broadly than Steve Hamm lets on. For example, there is at least 5-7 years of MySQL with novel, new Open Source database table types as well as indexes. JBoss is leading the way with practical applied Aspect Oriented Programming and new Hibernate inspired storage protocols for its Open Source Application Server. And Ruby, Jython and Groovy are doing very interesting innovations in their Open Source scripting languages integrating with Java and other popular programming languages. Indeed the infrastruture is in place and now Open Source is starting to lead in key innovations in a number of IT markets. From its very beginnings in academia, Open Source and innovation have been co-conspirators. Dont let anyone tell you contrary.

(c)JBSurveyer 2005