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Third phase of open source: customer participation

We are entering the next phase of open-source development, that which turns mere consumers of open-source software into co-developers.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

BUENOS AIRES--Open source has successfully navigated its first two phases of development and adoption. We're now entering the third, and possibly final, phase: the time when consumers of open-source software also become producers.

Can enterprise IT make the leap?

Enterprise IT to give open source a piece of its mind

Billions of dollars in IT investment are at stake. Perhaps even more importantly, billions of lines of code could be, too. While significant software products are written for sale, arguably much more software is written by enterprise IT to run businesses as diverse as Safeway stores and Barclays banks.

Unlocking and distributing the value of that enterprise IT, developed to run behind the firewall, is the next big step for open source.

As Red Hat's general manager for Latin America, Julian Somodi, and Red Hat's Latin America marketing director, Martin D'Elia, speculated on Thursday at a lunch meeting here in Buenos Aires, open source's greatest value is unlocked when one moves from being a mere consumer of open-source software to also being a co-producer of such software.

It's a message Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst has been sounding for the past two years, and it may finally be catching on.

Today, enterprise IT is adopting and using open source on a grand scale. Gartner finds that 85 percent of enterprises are using open source today. (My hunch? The other 15 percent are, too, but the CIOs surveyed simply didn't know.)

The percentage contributing back? I've seen no data on this, but my personal, anecdotal evidence suggests that few enterprises contribute back to open-source projects, for a variety of reasons. Legal is probably the biggest, as enterprise IT weighs the risk of exposing itself to potential lawsuits from faulty or IP-infringing code.

This concern would appear more intractable had the vendor community not already navigated it in the second phase of open-source development. Vendors had the same concerns that plague enterprise IT today, and ultimately discovered that the value of open-source participation trumps its risk.

As a sign that we're coming to the close of this second phase, even laggards like SAP have announced significant progress in their open-source development efforts.

The same benefits that attracted SAP et al. will propel enterprise IT into this third and final phase of open-source participation, too.

Which benefits?

For starters, open-source software development offers a quicker path to resolution of bugs, a recent analysis finds.

It also enables finer-grained control and customization, as the French army has discovered with Mozilla Thunderbird, the customizations of which can be shared so as to offload the burden of supporting the code.

It might well be, as Gartner's Brian Prentice argues, that ultimately only vendors care about open source. But I think this view only rings true if enterprise IT remains blinded to the big benefits that derive from open-source participation, rather than mere consumption.

While not every company will have a great experience all of the time (witness, for example, the problems Farelogix had developing community around its open-source travel management point-of-sale tool), enough enterprises are experimenting that to suggest the third-phase train is leaving the station for good:

JP Morgan Chase led the way by open-sourcing its AMQP project. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange has also jumped into the fray with Linux. Reuters has its OpenCalais project, a project that is even being used here at CNET.

And so on. It's happening. It's real. And for those enterprises that jump into this third phase of open-source participation, the benefits promise to be palpable.