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It's OK to be an open-source flip-flopper

Open source has been a political battle for far too long. The current fear to change a business model to reflect customer and market realities can be debilitating.

Reading through the latest copy of BusinessWeek last night, I particularly enjoyed this comment from Jack and Suzy Welch on political "flip-flopping," otherwise known as "changing one's mind in the face of new information":

It's hard to know exactly when flip-flopping first became a dirty word in the leadership lexicon. But in recent years, it has been the epithet of choice against political candidates on both sides of the fence...In those cases, critics made it sound as if revising a stance is some kind of a moral failing.

What nonsense. It is the essence of leadership to have the self-confidence to admit that a strategy has gone off course or a position has become outdated. And it is the responsibility of all leaders in such a "predicament" to revise their direction swiftly, widely communicate it, and move on without undue pandering or emotionality.

We have the same pride in open source--the same fear to change our business models to reflect customer and market realities--and it can be debilitating. Just ask MySQL, which was repeatedly stymied in its efforts to tweak its model to enable a revenue stream more consistent with its massive popularity.

We need to spend less time fetishizing open-source politics and more time focusing on customer pragmatism.

Not that MySQL is alone. Luke Kanies, founder of the successful Puppet project, describes his own reasons for running this purity gauntlet in an excellent post describing his company's "Open Core" business model. Kanies waxes pragmatic, not philosophical, and that's why I think Puppet, as well as the company (Reductive Labs) behind it, will succeed.

For years, open source divided itself into purists (of which I was part) and the hybrids (or "mutts," as one friend called it while I was at Novell, a hybrid open-source company). What nonsense, to use the Welches' phrasing.

We make open source entirely too ideological, too political. As I discovered at the New York CTO Club, the open-source vendor community, enterprise IT buyers care far more about whether software works (and is sold at a compelling price) than they do about its ideological wrappings. On that day, I became a flip-flopper. I've been much happier ever since and, I feel, much more community and customer-focused.

It's time for the open-source community to become far more pragmatic and, when necessary, to flip-flop. This isn't to suggest that we should forget our ideals, such as transparency and reduced vendor lock-in. But it is to declare that we need to spend less time fetishizing open-source politics and more time focusing on customer pragmatism. We should be a lot less like Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, in other words, and much more like Eric Raymond of the Open Source Initiative.

And lest we flip-flop alone, here's a suggestion for Microsoft: be more like Ray Ozzie and less like Steve Ballmer. Flip-flop on open source. You'll like it.

Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.