Harvard starts teaching open source

Harvard's latest case study asks a classic question: To go open source or not? It doesn't provide any answers, but does offer some hints.

It's about time that United States elite academic institutions finally got around to not only using open-source software, but also teaching it. In the April 2008 edition of Harvard Business Review, Harvard gives its MBA students a taste of the decision facing every company that leverages technology as part of its business (namely, everyone):

Should I embrace or fight open source?

In the case study, "Open Source: Salvation or Suicide," HBR tags along with Evan and Martina ("Marty") Dirweg as Evan tries to persuade Marty that her successful business will become even more so with open source, rather than as a proprietary software/hardware vendor.

Marty's dilemma is palpable, as open-source competitors (who grew up on her company's technology but have now opened it up to the world) start to eat her lunch:

...[Marty] challenged [Evan] to come out with it: What could be wrong with the company's so-far highly successful strategy of jealously guarding its intellectual property? Why should she open the software in Amp Up, as he had so casually suggested on the phone? Why should she invite the open-source community into the company vault, so to speak, and allow it to play with the crown jewels? on open-source software....

"Marty, these guys aren't going away. The point is, it's no longer just individuals hacking into your hardware and software or making game controllers of their own or writing code for themselves and their friends. It's companies now, too. Companies with real money behind them. These people are passionate about the user community that you created four years ago by bringing Amp Up into the world. And they're just as passionate about the idea that the user and developer communities should be based on open source, with developers being able to freely swap and write software to fashion applications as they see fit." (2)

As with all Harvard case studies, there is no resolution to the dilemma - just the open question (pun intended): To open source or not to open source?

Not open sourcing, as the case study implies, is a losing game. There is simply too much interest in open communities created to develop software in the image of those communities, and not in any single vendor's image.

But the case study also implies that how to make a business in open source is not necessarily easy. The case study suggests support as a winning strategy, but those of us who have been down that road will tell you that while part of an overall open-source revenue story, it can't be the only chapter.

The reality is that there are some very compelling ways to make money in open source, including Red Hat's, IBM's, Zimbra's, etc. But we'll let the Harvard MBAs spend two years noodling on what many of us get to live.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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