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Who cares about open source?

Open source may not be the right marketing message for taking Linux and other open-source projects mainstream.

A hugely significant issue for open source was revealed at Red Hat's recent analyst day. As suggested by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, and as captured by ComputerWorld, open source may still be the province of early-adopter geeks:

Red Hat does well with "companies that use technology for competitive advantage," mainstream companies that don't care about being on the leading edge of technology adoption are still largely an untapped market for the vendor. Red Hat has a high market share among companies that focus on technology to drive their businesses, such as financial services companies and major movie studios. However, this is just a small part of the enterprise IT market....

Looking around at my own customers, it is certainly true that we have many customers (Governments, universities, manufacturing companies, etc.) for whom technology is an afterthought, not a competitive advantage. So there are a range of companies that don't fit this description enjoying the benefits of open source.

But it is also absolutely the case that of my customers and other enterprises with whom I speak, those that derive the most value from open source today are those for whom technology is a significant means to the end of competitive advantage. I suspect that the market will take the lessons and technology learned from these early adopters and apply it to mainstream markets, but it's very possible that the companies that benefit from this mainstreaming of open source won't be the same ones that brought open source to the early adopters.

Consider Google. It derives enormous benefit from open source, but it doesn't sell open source. It "sells" search, easy content collaboration, etc. The same holds true for Cisco and other companies that derive significant value from open source, but don't make much noise about it in their marketing materials.

Perhaps to be successful long-term Red Hat and other open-source companies will need to fixate less on the inherent advantages of open source (Better code, more flexibility, etc.) and focus more on the inherent value of their products (which just so happen to include open source)? The answer, most likely, is to do both: more education as to why open source matters, but also more concentration on making the product speak for itself so that open source doesn't have to.