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Can open source stop navel gazing and get real?

Open-source advocates are often out of tune with the customers to whom they're selling.

Enterprises and other users deploy open-source software because it works. For those of us in the open-source vendor community, however, too often we waste time talking about issues that have relatively little resonance for the vast majority of users.

We miss the mark on open-source marketing. In fact, it's often the case that the very standards we seek to set for the software world--interoperability, transparency, etc.--are better observed and delivered by open standards than by open source.

As a case in point, Red Hat and other open-source companies (including Alfresco, my employer) routinely advertise "no lock-in" as a key reason to buy open source. There are two problems with this marketing pitch: one, it's only technically true, and two, customers don't care, as Redmonk's Stephen O'Grady recently noted.

On the first, it's true that open source can reduce vendor lock-in by ensuring that a customer can get support and ongoing code development from someone other than the original developer of the software. But this is only trivially true.

Once a customer invests in a particular vendor (be it Red Hat or Canonical or Novell or MySQL or...), there will always be a cost associated with leaving that vendor, a cost that arguably isn't much different whether that vendor's code is open source or proprietary.

Cost aside (which is easier said than done, as cost is the primary consideration for the buyer), the support options for Vendor X's code from Vendor Y or Z are unlikely to be on par with what Vendor X can deliver. Just ask Red Hat about CentOS or Oracle Enterprise Linux support. ("Compatibility with Red Hat Enterprise Linux can only be verified by Red Hat's internal test suite.")

Apparently there's no long as you stay with the original open-source developer. :-)

The reality is that open-source vendors should be pitching real value to real customers. As Josef Assad presented at the Open Source Days 2008 conference, open source should strive to "lose the TCO (total cost of ownership) war with proprietary vendors." Open-source value is about performance and flexibility at a great price--and not necessarily about absolute freedom from lock-in.

Red Hat gets this. That's why most of the time it sells the value of its subscriptions, and not the hocus-pocus "no lock-in" story. Red Hat doesn't have 75 percent of the paid Linux market (or, probably more accurately, 62 percent, according to IDC) because of its lock-in story.

Would-be customers don't care about that. Really. They just want Red Hat's performance and price, especially compared with Unix.

In fact, to the extent that customers really do want interoperability and reduced vendor lock-in, it's open standards that they should be asking for, not open source.

IBM's Savio Rodrigues points this out in his analysis of the different permutations on the open-source WebKit project. Serdar Yegulalp adds to the analysis:

Source code is a building block, not a standard. It's something you turn into other things. A standard is something that stands above and apart from all of those things, a guideline for what that finished product ought to be like....

The problem with using code as a standard is simple: it's too fluid. The minute you implement it in something, it's not the same code anymore. It almost always has to be changed to fit its container, as water changes to fit.

Open source is an indispensable complement to open standards, but it's not a substitute for them.

This isn't the only area where open-source vendors misread customer tea leaves. For years open-source insiders have debated definitions for "open-source vendor," even as customers shrugged their shoulders and continued using open source--from different vendors with very different business strategies--without worrying about the various shades of ideology and pragmatism that fuel open-source development. I'm as guilty of leading this foolish march as anyone.

Real customers simply don't care.

This is why I think Sun open-source guru Simon Phipps' proposed expansion of the Open Source Initiative's charter is misguided, though very well-intentioned. (The 451 Group's Matt Aslett also weighs in on the proposal.)

Phipps wants the OSI to establish a "holistic vision of software freedom against which businesses can be benchmarked" because too many companies, apparently, are calling themselves "open source" without a consistent definition for what this means.

I don't think it matters. The reality is that businesses don't seem to have any trouble adopting open source regardless of such "truth-in-labeling" initiatives. Gartner suggests that 85 percent of businesses are already using open source. Forrester tells us that a big majority of enterprises are adopting open source because it's delivering real cost and quality benefits to them.

And so the problem is...?

Well, the problem is that open-source advocates are often out-of-sync with open-source adopters. We probably need a new breed of open-source advocate, as ZDNet's Jason Perlow suggests, the kind that reflect customer interests in pragmatic adoption and not advocates' interest in controlling and fine-tuning that adoption.

We don't need paternalistic oversight of open-source adoption, and we don't need to fuel it through vague and inaccurate marketing. Open source is a fantastic way to develop and distribute software. Customers recognize this and don't need to be cajoled or confused into buying.