August 25, 2001

Eric S. Raymond: VA going proprietary? Naahhh...

Author: JT Smith

(Editor's note: This is a note Open Source evangelist and VA Linux board member Eric S. Raymond sent to several Open Source news outlets. VA Linux is NewsForge's corporate parent.)
VA's announcement that it would be selling proprietary add-ons to
has gotten big coverage [1], but there is less there than meets the
eye. This
is a change in tactics, not strategy.

What VA didn't say in the press release, and what Larry Augustin and
the PR people knew in advance I was going to say on the community news
channels, is the precise reason why this is happening.

What we've found out is that there is something of a disconnect, at the
big corporate customers, between how the techologists and strategy
perceive open source and how middle management preceives it. The
and strategy people, more often than not these days, actually get it.
managers, a more conservative group by nature and job description,
often still

This is specifically a problem because VA's sales guys often find
themselves talking to middle managers who don't get it or only half
get it. So they do their why-open-source-is-wonderful talk -- and the
reaction they get is a sort of quasi-instinctive "uh, why don't we just
download it from the web and install and maintain it ourselves instead
of paying you to do it?"

Rationally, this is really pretty stupid. If you add up all the time
and opportunity costs associated with having a bunch of your guys
learn how to do this from scratch (and not necessarily doing it
competently), renting VA's experts is clearly the smarter move.
Usually the prospective customer knows that with the top of his mind,
even -- but there are powerful instincts in the managerial underbrain
pulling the other way.

So what do you do? Tell the customer he's being stupid? No, I don't
think so.

What VA is doing instead is throwing a sop to those instincts by
hanging some proprietary tinsel off the product. This makes it
psychologically easier for Mr. Middle Manager to sign the check; he
can think "I'm buying something real" -- as if bits on a disk are more
real than the people-hours in the service contract that goes with it.
But there it is; most sales and marketing is founded on the reality
that people aren't very rational.

If we were still in a boom time, we might still have the luxury of
perfect doctrinal purity. But face it, people, it's pretty much
raining crap out there macroeconomically. Capital spending is in the
tank and it's probably going to get worse before it gets better. Until
things turn around, Mr. Middle Manager is going to be even more
conservative than usual -- and thus more likely to be penny-wise and
pound-foolish in the way that particularly hurts us.

We can hold on to the open-source vision, but under these
circumstances we've concluded that we can't afford to be proud about
how we pitch it. VA is a damn fine outfit with a lot of good people,
but companies just as promising have already gone to the knackers'
yard. It won't serve anybody if we go the same way. So we'll take
any edge we can get, even if that means we MPL some stuff instead of
GPLing it and have to have a few meg of closed code lying around.

And if you think VA has turned into just another corporate greed
ask yourself this -- how many companies would encourage one of their
board members to post anything as brutally candid as I'm being here?
But Larry Augustin knew I was going to do this and he smiled. We're
still the same people and the same company that earned the Linux
trust. I hope we'll never lose that. I'll work to be sure it's so.

So the real news here is that VA is still about open source -- if I
believe that, I'd be off their board of directors so fast it would make
your head spin. We're just being pragmatic about how we sell the idea.
Change peoples' behavior first, show them the advantages in doing so,
their hearts and minds will follow.

The religious fanatics out there won't be appeased by this, I know.
sure there will be cries of "Treason!", "Betrayal!", "Apostasy!" and so
forth. We knew that. We'll stand it -- because surviving and thriving
we can continue to be the friends of open source is the most important
service we can do for the community we come from.

-- Eric S. Raymond


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