November 7, 2005

OSBC proves open source and business go together

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

I attended the first "east coast" Open
Source Business Conference

(OSBC) in Newton, Mass. last week, along with about 400 other
people. Two similar conferences have been held in San Francisco. The
first one there, in 2004, had about 400 attendees, but according to
conference organizer Matt Asay the 2005 one had nearly 800, and he
hopes to see similar growth in the east coast version, not that this
event felt empty or strayed from its theme. Almost all of
the people I met at OSBC were open source users, but they were
also hardheaded businessmen and businesswomen. And lawyers. In fact, four
law firms
helped sponsor the event.

This conference qualified as "in service training" for attorneys whose
state bar associations require continuing education to maintain a law
license, which shows -- along with the law firm sponsorships -- that
open source is now a large enough part of the IT landscape
that
knowing its ins and outs has become necessary for intellectual
property (IP) attorneys whose clients either make or use software. And
since virtually every business in the U.S. with more than a few dozen
employees is IT-dependent these days and open source is all over the
place, virtually all major corporate law firms now need to
have at
least one or two people on staff who understand the legal side of open
source.

The star legal speaker was Eben
Moglen
,
who is such a smooth lecturer that I would happily listen to him talk
about anything he wants. Peter Galli did a great
job
of capturing the
essence of the panel discussion about GPL 3.0 for eWeek that Moglen was
on (and dominated).

The business of open
source

Conference attendees weren't there to learn about open
source in the "What is this phenomenon?" sense but to learn better ways
their businesses could profit or cut costs by using it. One thought I
heard from several people was that we are seeing the start of an open
source investment mini-bubble, and it's true that there were venture
capitalists around, sniffing out potential deals with nascent
companies. The VC presence wasn't as strong as it was at the Web
2.0 Conference
in October, but it was stronger than I've seen
it at any other IT-oriented conference since 2000.

Open source is hot. Open source is in. Open source is a buzzword, one
now used by everybody in the IT business at some point, including
Microsoft, who sent their Director of Shared Source, Jason
Matusow
, to tell us we should all share
our software and love one another
. (Of course, in the
Matusow/Microsoft view, hardly anyone really needs or wants to look at
a program's source code, and only qualified professionals -- such as
Microsoft employees -- should actually be allowed to change most of it.)

The most common business models I saw on display involved either dual
licensing options, a la
MySQL
or products "built on an open source base" with
proprietary add-ons on top of that base to make the products work in
normal production situations without a lot of fiddling.  

In one session, open source entrepreneurs pitched
their products to a panel of CIOs and venture capitalists. Presenter Moshe
Bar
, CTO of XenSource,
said it was a good experience; that no one on the panel needed to be
told about open source concepts but that their questions related to
the presenters' business models and product viability, "just
like they'd evaluate any kind of software business, open source or
proprietary."

This was a theme that ran through other conversations I had: that while
this might have been a gathering of open source faithful, it was more
of a business conference than an open source conference. It had almost
no evangelistic tone to it. While there were discussions of patent law
and software licensing, there was little talk of overthrowing the
current system.

In many ways, this conference proved Richard Stallman right. His
warnings that the ideals of the free software movement would get lost
as the watered-down open source concept -- designed from the start to
be more corporate-friendly than free software -- got taken over by
companies motivated purely by profit, with only small lip service paid
to the idea of workable software for everyone regardless of economic
circumstances.

You can make a counter-argument that the growing number of companies
using and contributing to open source (and free software) projects
helps develop more and better free software. And then you can make
counter-counter arguments, and keep this circle going forever. But this
conference proved, for anyone who wasn't already convinced, that open
source and free software may be close relatives and may even have a lot
of overlap, but they are not the same thing.

A worthwhile conference

One thing I do at conferences I attend is ask paid attendees if they
feel they got their money's worth. OSBC costs $1495, but only one
person I talked to about the conference's value had doubts about its
value. The other 20+ I asked told me they learned enough (and made
enough contacts) to make the admission price worth
paying. Gordon Haff's  Illuminata
Perspectives post
and TheOpenForce
(a blog about open source business) said similar things -- and since
these two posts link to most of the other posts to which I was planning
to link, you might as well get the links through them instead of me
duplicating their efforts.

One link I will follow for you, though, is Gordon Haff's mention of
Steve O'Grady's Redmonk.com
post
. Steve said something I was going to say myself:

"Also interesting to yours truly was a question on the value of
analysts. The question was posed to the assembled CIOs about how much
influence external parties such as folks like Forrester, Gartner or IDC
had on open source investments and the answer came back quickly: very
little. The general impression of most of the panelists seemed to be
that analysts a.) don't cover the open source technologies in enough
depth, b.) have significant conflicts of interest given their financial
relationships with commercial vendors, and c.) reporting is often
considered suspect b/c of b. Couldn't agree more, and one would suspect
that The Hartford's James McGovern would as well."

I, too, am
suspicious of analysts' discussions of open source, especially since so
many analysts' reports on open source are sponsored
by proprietary software vendors. In the news business, we work hard to
keep editorial and ad sales functions separate, which means those of us
on the editorial side field complaints from readers about ads they
don't like, while our ad salespeople get complaints from sponsors about
articles they don't like. We accept these complaints as the cost of
running an ethical news operation. Analysts often work without with such
a strong divide between the business and research sides of their
companies. Indeed, I know analysts who are responsible for drumming up
their own clients, which to me seems rather like a reporter being
forced to find corporate sponsors for each article. Maybe you'd trust a
reporter or editor who was directly sponsored by this or that company,
but I wouldn't. In any case, it seems the CIOs who come to conferences
like OSBC have a similar sense of skepticism about analysts, which is
good news
for open source (and free software) advocates.

Now for a bit of irony: The next conference I plan to attend is the Gartner
Open Source Summit
 in early December. I think
analysts are starting to realize that open source is important to a
growing number of their clients, and that they need to cover open
source software (and possibly even free software) in an even-handed
manner if they are going to maintain their credibility and influence.
It will be interesting to see what is presented at this Gartner
conference, and -- even more important -- how it is
presented.

I'm looking forward to this conference. Gartner is huge. And skeptical
CIOs aside, their word carries a lot of weight in the corporate
world.   

I'm also looking forward to the 2006 San
Francisco edition of OSBC
in February. I suspect that the
venture capital contingent will be out in even more force than at the
recent Boston version or last year's San Francisco one. Maybe we're
entering an open source bubble, as some seem to think. But it's also
possible that open source is now mature enough, in a business sense,
that we are going to see a steady increase in the number of
software businesses adopting open source development and
licensing because it gives them a competitive edge over
proprietary competitors.

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