April 16, 2007

Stuart Cohen launches Collaborative Software Initiative

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Stuart Cohen stepped down from his role as CEO of the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) in in December, saying that he was going to "explore open source joint development using best practices in collaboration and building communities." Today, Cohen has announced what's he's been up to since then. He has formed the Collaborative Software Initiative, a for-profit company that will try to bring companies together to use open source methodology to develop software for vertical industries.

Cohen says the merger of OSDL and the Free Standards Group was in motion before he joined OSDL, and that leaving OSDL was not only prompted by the merger. "They've been having that discussion almost five years, but I think that the focus the FSG and OSDL was going to take with the Linux Foundation was to be Linux only and really focus efforts on Linux.... I wanted to go look at ideas around collaborative software.

"I was interested in being CEO and running my own company. I loved being CEO at OSDL, but really wanted to focus on applications; to focus on Linux only wasn't broad enough."

CSI is partnering with IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Novell, and has funding from OVP Venture Partners. Cohen says that those companies would like to see more software developed in the marketplace in general, and that "it gives them the opportunity to go sell" more services, software, and hardware to customers.

Cohen says that CSI is "focused on bringing customers together to work on open source methodology" to develop "essential but noncompetitive" software. For example, Cohen says that CSI might work on developing compliance software for financial institutions -- vertical applications that are necessary for business, but not likely to give any institution an edge over its competitors.

CSI will be focusing on creating software from the ground up, based around the LAMP stack. Cohen says that the group will be focusing on "small" projects that would cost between $1 to $2 million to develop in less than a year.

He also says that it's too hard to try to work within existing communities in this fashion. Instead, Cohen says it will be easier to start with six to eight industry players on creating a project and then open sourcing the result and offering support subscriptions to other players in the industry that would benefit from the software. Cohen also indicated that CSI was looking at the possibility of offering the final product as hosted software or software as a service (SaaS).

Dan Frye, vice president of IBM's open systems development and part of the "informal team" Cohen has gathered to advise him on CSI, says that open development is "something Stuart and I have discussed for a long time." Frye says that vertical industries, such as banking, finance, pharmaceutical, insurance, and health care industries, are "struggling with the power of community, the power of collaborative development," and that a company like CSI could help these companies get in step with collaborative development on software that isn't competitive.

Will the projects always remain small? Frye says he thinks CSI could scale up to larger projects, but for now "you don't want to start larger, you want to start small ... show how it works, and see how far you can make it scale.

"It's all about community. As it grows it can take on larger and larger projects."

Why would customers turn to CSI to develop their software, rather than developing it in-house or outsourcing it altogether? Cohen says that CSI can help produce software more cheaply than in-house development, and that it's "less risky" than outsourcing software development. Frye says, "It's not as easy as it looks. IBM spent seven or eight years learning how communities work."

To some, it might seem obvious for industry players to invest in collaborative development, and one might wonder why industries need to pay an outside firm to help organize collaborative development. Frye says, "It's obvious, but it's not simple. Nobody's done it before. These vertical industries don't think of themselves as software developers. We simply think it's better for the industry. Allow these industries to be more efficient in how they build their own stacks, how they work together."

Process, not purity

CSI is taking a cue from open source methodology, but it's not a "pure open source play," says Cohen. Right now, CSI doesn't have any specific licenses in mind to offer software under, though Cohen does say that they plan to open source the projects when they are mature, and indicated that they would prefer Open Source Initiative-approved licenses.

Eben Moglen, chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), is on the advisory council for CSI. Moglen says his role will be "to offer very occasional advice" about building and fostering software development communities.

One might wonder why Moglen, a vocal advocate for free software, would be associated with an institution that is unabashedly promoting the open source methodology over the principle of free software. Moglen says that working with CSI is not about his personal principles.

"SFLC, its others lawyers, and I give advice to and work with a range of organizations, including for-profit businesses as well as non-profits, in order to advance the making and distribution of such software. I'm what the law professors call a legal realist: I'm not concerned with what social phenomena are called; I want to know what they do and how to change them."

Moglen points out that "basic infrastructure" such as operating systems, scripting languages, server software, and office applications are already available as free and open source software "which are slowly driving the prior monopolistic incumbent and its satellite ecology out of the business."

CSI, says Moglen, takes things a step beyond generic infrastructure software. "CSI addresses another element: the lowered cost of producing specialized infrastructure that's valuable to an entire industry vertical but would be unlikely spontaneously to attract the attention of a free software development community. A structure for seeding and incubating communities to produce that software could have immense multiplier effects."