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Open-source Sunday School: Myth versus reality in IT purchasing decisions

Open source gets mythologized at times. There's just no need to do this.

One of the best stories from all of scripture (of any religion) comes from the Midrash. It fits a phenomenon in software really well, where we sometimes rely on myths to sell open source when the realities of open source should be more than enough:

One time a woman came with a basket of bread. She said to Abraham, "Take this and offer it to the gods".

Abraham got up, took a hammer in his hand, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them.

When his father came back and saw the broken idols, he was appalled. "Who did this?" he cried. "How can I hide anything from you?" replied Abraham calmly. "A woman came with a basket of bread and told me to offer it to them. I brought it in front of them, and each one said, "I'm going to eat first." Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces."

"What are you trying to pull on me?" asked Terach, "Do they have minds?"

Said Abraham: "Listen to what your own mouth is saying? They have no power at all! Why worship idols?" (Midrash Bereishit 38:13)

I first came across this excellent story in the 37th Surah of the Qu'ran. I see it played out every day by open-source proponents, including myself.

At times we create "idols" of open source, elevating it to mythical proportions and thereby dividing IT departments: the proprietary hacks versus the enlightened ones. We're much better off acknowledging open source's weaknesses while simultaneously selling its strengths. (Of course, the same is true for software, generally, whatever the license. If you have a compelling product there's no need to idolize it.)

IT is well served by reality. More truth, less distortion. For example, this past week a large prospective customer asked me to distinguish Alfresco's open-source Enterprise Content Management solution from Microsoft's Sharepoint. I was tempted to create the idol but instead pointed out the relative strengths of both and suggested that perhaps "both" would be the right answer for their needs. The prospect seemed to like this answer. I expect to do business with them.

Open source is an exceptional method for developing, distributing, licensing, and supporting software. It need not be more than this to be worth a buyer's time and money. Let's not idolize open source.