open source competition

I've been flitting about the relm of political economics, technological infrastrucutre, and cyborg-related topics for a number of weeks, maybe months, and I haven't written very much about open source. This post is hopefully a bit of a return to this kind of topic, mostly because I've been staring at a blog post for weeks, and I finally have something that's nearly cogent to about an article that kind of pissed me off. Here goes

The article in question seeks to inform would-be-software entrepreneurs how they ought to compete against open source software, and to my mind makes a huge mess of the whole debate. Lets do some more in-depth analysis.

"Open source is only cheap if you don't care about time," is an interesting argument that sort of addresses the constant complaint that open source is "fussy." Which it is, right? Right. One of the best open source business models is to provide services around open-source that make it less fussy. Also I think Free Software is often "a work in progress," and is thus only occasionally "fully polished," and is often best thought of as a base component that can be used to build something that's fully customized to a specific contextual set of requirements. That's part of the value and importance of free software.

I don't think we can have our cake and eat it too on this one, (the cake is a lie!) and in a lot of ways I think this is really a positive attribute of free software.

The complaints regarding open source software seem to boil down to: "open source software doesn't come with support services, and installation polish" (we're working on it, but this is a commercial opportunity to provide support around open source products in general.)

So to consolidate the argument, the author seems to suggest that: "in order to beat open source software, which sucks because it's not polished enough and doesn't have support, I'm going to write a totally different code base, that I'll then have to polish and support."

My only real response is. "Have fun with that."


Before I lay this to rest, I want to give potential "Commercial Software Vendors" (proprietary software vendors?) the following qualifications on the advice in the original article.

1. Save your users time: Sound advice. Though I think the best way to save users time is probably to integrate your product with other related tools. Make your product usable and valuable. Provide support, and take advantage skilled interaction designers to provide intuitive interfaces. Don't, however, treat your users like idiots, or assume that because your product might have a learning curve it's flawed. The best software not only helps us solve the problems we know we have, but also solves problems we didn't know we had, and in the process creates tremendous value. Don't be afraid to innovate.

Also, **save yourself time*, you can create more value for your customers by not reinventing the proverbial wheel. Use open source software to bootstrap your process, and if the value you create is (as it always is) in support and polish, you can do that to open source just as well as you can to your own software.

2. Market Hard, might work, but it's all hit and miss. Open source might not be able to advertise, or send people on sales calls to enterprises, but open source has communities that support it, including communities of people who are often pretty involved in IT departments. Not always, mind you, but sometimes.

If you're a "Commercial Software Vendor" you're going to have a hell of a time building a community around your product. True fact. And word of mouth, which is the most effective way to predict sales, is killer hard without a community.

4. Focus on features for people who are likely to buy your product, is a great suggestion, and really, sort of the point of commercial software, as far as I can see. Custom development and consulting around open source if you can provide it, achieves the same goal. At the same time, I think a lot of open source enterprise software exists and succeeds on the absence of licensing fees, and so I think would-be-software vendors should be really wary to think of the enterprise as being "cash cows" particularly in the long run.

So in summary:

  • Create value, real enduring value. Not ephemeral profitability, or in-the-moment utility.
  • Be honest about what your business/endeavor really centers on, and do that as best you can.
  • Understand the social dynamics of open source, not simply the technological constrains of the user experience.

And.... done.

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