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Product management goes open source

Open source offers a superior way to perform product management by watching how developers use one's software.

One of the hardest parts about launching a new product is knowing what prospective customers want to buy. Sure, some companies like Apple can impose their product visions on the public, but most vendors need to fulfill pre-existing product requirements, not create new ones. For everyone but Apple open source offers a great way to perform product management.

When I was working on my juris doctorate, I signed up to be a guinea pig for Microsoft. (It's not as bad as it sounds.) The company would send people out to my house to observe me using my computer, and to ask me questions about changes I'd like to see in various product categories. In return, Microsoft gave me free software.

This is the sort of product marketing/management that most software vendors do. Focus groups, interviews, surveys, etc., form the basis of the product requirements documents (PRDs), which are then used to build products.

Open source may provide a better, more efficient way. As Stephen Walli puts it:

Open source software is a key economic driver from an engineering efficiency and software reuse perspective, but it also opens new opportunities and additional tools for product management to engage better with customers and improve both the top line and the bottom line.

By providing free access to one's product, coupled with the ability to modify it to suit one's needs, open source enables users to describe exactly what they'd buy from the original developer of the open-source project.

My employer, Alfresco, provides an example. The company was founded to provide an open-source alternative to incumbent vendors in the enterprise content management (ECM), Web content management (WCM), and records management (RM) markets. For years, our marketing has targeted buyers in these markets, pitching a low-cost, high-value alternative to proprietary ECM/WCM/RM.

Our customers didn't get the memo. While we were talking about ECM, many of the roughly 30,000 people downloading the product every month were using it as a foundation upon which to build their own applications, most of which would never be classified as ECM. They were creating their own category of infrastructure/middleware, using our technology.

The content application server was born, and we almost missed it, despite the fact that it was happening with our code. We were so busy marketing our vision that we almost missed listening to our users' vision(s). This new vision on an old way of using our product will significantly impact everything we do for years to come.

This is a major opportunity for open-source vendors. As Vinnie Mirchandani (@dealarchitect) suggests, "strategic apps are being custom built" by enterprise IT, not IT vendors. Increasingly, as Stan Rose, managing director, technology risk management, Bank of New York Mellon, told me a few years back, open source is the innovation platform upon which such strategic applications are built.

This is great news, because it means open-source companies, if they listen to their users, are well-positioned to build platforms that can become the lifeblood of enterprise IT. ReadWriteWeb rightly concludes that Twitter's "success has been credited to its ability to transform from a basic life streaming service into a platform," with an outsized, $1 billion valuation to match.

Few open-source companies wouldn't salivate to have the same valuation.

Redmonk's James Governor defines this platform opportunity in the context of "tools," but I think we're talking about the same thing. Open-source companies and communities have the potential to deliver an exceptional platform experience, one built on "tools" in Governor's sense of the word, provided they listen to their users to know what sort of "tools" to build.

There are billions to be made. It's just a matter of listening.