August 8, 2003

Open Source by Osmosis

- by Matt Asay -

Much has been said and written about open source software in the past few years. So much, indeed, that one would think we would be super-saturated with it, and ready to move on to the 'next big thing.' But we have not, and do not appear to be even remotely close to the limit of open source's potential. It apparently cannot be over-hyped.

One of open source's key benefits, which is often touted, is that it allows corporations to leverage a massive, unpaid (by the corporation) workforce. Thousands of developers co-create Linux, JBOSS, Open Office, etc., with (in most cases) no direct remuneration from their respective employers for their efforts. In the process, companies like HP, IBM, Novell, Red Hat, and many others are privileged to build hardware underneath or software on top of or alongside of this great, free/open code.

But this is just one benefit of open source for corporations, and probably the most obvious. It is not, however, the most interesting. Of much greater importance, to my mind, is the influx of differing opinions and ideas open source leaks into a corporation, be it a vendor or end-user of IT.

Let me give a personal example. I joined Novell a little over a year ago (June, 2002). Many people do not realize this, but Novell continues to churn over $1 billion in revenues each year. The company is doing something right, in other words, because customers keep paying.

But, as in Clayton Christensen's classic book, The Innovator's Dilemma, it is precisely this success that is most likely to lead a company like Novell to avoid change; to continue pleasing existing customers until the well runs dry and the company fails. Novell builds great technology, and the people I have worked with over the past year are tremendously proud of the technical excellence they continue to achieve. They have every incentive to lock up the cathedral, pat themselves on the back, and disregard every concern beyond building great products for their customers.

And, frankly, when I joined last June, it looked very much like Novell was going to do just that. I joined Novell from an embedded Linux startup (Lineo), where we constantly pushed the envelope in search of a workable business model for open source. We were on the cutting edge of thought and practice in open source. Novell was anything but, and my first six months were extremely frustrating.

Something happened, however. Something changed, and the change was good. That 'something' was open source.

Open source is something that finds its way into a corporation, like it or not. It leaks or gushes in, according to the corporate reception it finds. At Novell, open source initially seeped into the organization, and long before I joined. People like Brad Nicholes were actively contributing to Apache, and people like Dale Olds were leaving the company to join Linux/open source-related companies (Turbo Linux, in Dale's case), and returning to Novell with new ideas and new intolerance for the old way of doing things. The natives began to get restless, and when Chris Stone rejoined the company as vice chairman, he was like a match to a powder keg.

The resulting explosion within Novell has been overwhelmingly positive. As the Ximian acquisition and other Linux-related movements are showing, Novell gets open source, and is serious about building it and learning from it. Not content to rest on its laurels, Novell is pushing forward, attempting to pioneer new territory in the changing world of software. Open source has given Novell a way to build upon its past, without relinquishing it. NetWare remains, but becomes even better, offering customers more choice.

As a relative newcomer to Novell, it seems clear to me that this would not have happened without the 'subversive' nature of open source. You can choose not to get on the open source train, but you cannot prevent it from finding its way onto your employees' computers. You can lock the doors and try to block out new ideas, but the mailing lists, newsgroups, and other tools of the open source community will find your employees, and will influence them. For the better.

In short, you cannot prevent your employees from joining the 'bazaar' in some fashion, and you should not want to. Let some light into your company. Embrace the inevitable, and watch your company become more dynamic, more vibrant. Novell did, and we see no end to the positive, 'creative destruction' that it's bringing to the way we operate, and the solutions we build.

Matt Asay has spent most of his professional life trying to conceive novel ways to monetize open source software. Asay was GM of embedded Linux startup Lineo's Network & Communications business, and moved from Lineo to Novell, where he is responsible for charting Novell's Linux/OSS strategy. Asay holds a juris doctorate from Stanford, where he worked with Larry Lessig on analyzing the GPL and other open source licenses.

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