Low-key leaders are essential to open source success


Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Commentary: Executive personalities have more effect on the software industry than they have on almost any other business segment outside of the entertainment industry. A former coworker once said, “It’s not that Microsoft’s management is sane, just that in a business where insanity is normal they’re a little less insane than most others. And that’s why they do well.”When we discuss Sun these days, we don’t talk about technology development. We don’t ask, “Is Java a superior technology to .Net?” Nope. We wonder, “What will Joltin’ Jon and Slaverin’ Scott do next? Who will they go up against in this week’s tag team match?”

This isn’t business. It’s professional wrestling!

Ford’s CEO has never dressed up as a giant battery to show that he loves electric cars despite having said bad things about them in the past.

Meanwhile, we’re seeing a change in open source and free software spotlighters. Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond are losing influence in the public/media sense, while the bland/corporate, sales-oriented Stu Cohen is being trotted out more, usually with a newly media-friendly Linus Torvalds standing next to him. And the tactic is working. “Such and such company joins OSDL” was once news. Now it’s a twice-a-week ho-hum press release. Everybody but Microsoft seems to be joining up.

Even Unisys, the original anti-open source patent pirate (remember the GIF “submarine patents?”) now has its logo on the OSDL Web site.

Suave HP executive Martin Fink is more likely to headline a modern, corporate-oriented Linux conference than community spokesperson Bruce Perens.

At some point, given the um … colorful … nature of the executives running many of the world’s largest proprietary software companies, open source may be seen as the buttoned-down, conservative choice, not as the quirky outsider. As a case in point, contrast Oracle’s Larry Ellison with MySQL’s MÃ¥rten Mickos. MÃ¥rten comes across as a serious, trustworthy executive who keeps his mind on MySQL, while Larry comes across as a big basket of ego who is at least as interested in fast cars, girlfriends, airplanes, and racing yachts as in producing quality software.

I suspect that outside of the Silicon Valley culture, where giant egos are considered normal, MÃ¥rten Mickos comes across as more businesslike than Larry Ellison, and that this perception — which is based on my personal observations of both men, not on PR-created biographies — will go a long way toward making MySQL a direct competitor to Oracle.

Beyond impressions of people who run companies and open source projects, there’s another safety factor in open source: That the project leader’s personality isn’t nearly as important to an open source project as a CEO’s personality is to a proprietary software company’s products. When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said, under oath, during Microsoft’s antitrust trial, that if he didn’t like the judge’s decision he’d withdraw Windows from the market, it was a credible threat because no one besides Microsoft is allowed to make, distribute, modify, or update Windows.

Linus Torvalds and Stu Cohen can’t threaten, Ballmer-like, to take Linux away from the world on a whim. They could only take the name away. The kernel and everything that surrounds it would go on without them.

The freedom to make, maintain, and distribute your own version of a critical program is a major “safety valve” built into all open source and free software. In the long run, it is the biggest reason a concerned corporate manager should choose free or open source software over proprietary alternatives.

Your company may not have the resources to maintain an operating system or other major piece of software on its own, but if that software is essential to your business, it is likely to be essential to many others with whom you can cooperate to keep it alive and growing — and your company’s share of that new project’s costs will almost certainly be less than you’d spend to purchase equivalent proprietary software.

So we have a double bonus with free and open source software: First, we’re starting to see open source product leaders and spokespeople who are saner and more businesslike than their proprietary software industry counterparts. And second, with open source software, the project leader’s whims can’t affect that software’s users nearly as much as the whims of a proprietary software company’s CEO can affect its customers.

This pair of open source advantages hasn’t yet penetrated the software-using mainstream. But it will.

And when it does, proprietary software businesses are going to have an awfully hard time competing against open source in the corporate market.


  • Management