The Open Source Philosophy (Continued)

The conversation has continued over at the 451 CAOS Theory blog. In response to my musings on intent, David Dennis asked a great question:

Benjamin,

A question for you (and Tarus). Is this topic important to you because:

  1. You believe it’s an important marketing differentiator for the software you work on vs. competitors
  2. You believe it’s an important philosophical / moral issue worth evangelizing
  3. both

Tackling a) involves traditional marketing objectives around branding, awareness, messaging, positioning, etc. Not necessarily a cake walk, but certainly possible to make progress.

Tackling b) involves changing the way people think and behave, which is much much more challenging.

My response is:

Definitely both.

From a personal point of view, I’ve been involved in open source software since before the phrase was coined, so I do feel that it is at least a personal philosophical issue. BUT I’m also a pragmatist, and I know that arguing purely for philosophy’s sake will not convince anyone.

That said, that philosophy drives me to support the companies that I think are doing it “right.” I work for OpenNMS not just because I think the software’s great, but also because I love that we can compete with “the big guys” by having a better community.

Part of the reason that we get so passionate about it is that a lot of these “does it really matter?” conversations start with the implication that we’re already failing to compete, which is just plain wrong. I’m sure that’s why we probably often sound defensive when we are hoping to sound convincing. 😉

I’m the first to roll my eyes at the “true believers” — while I think that in the end open source is a better way to do things in a “pay it forward” kind of way, I believe it’s better from a philosophical and pragmatic way. It won’t work for everyone, but it can work for open source projects as an alternative to big-money funding.

I am a child of the VC tech industry. I’ve worked at startups and I know what it feels like to work on software you think is great only to be shut down and have the IP sold off, just because the VP of sales didn’t do his job. It’s refreshing to work for a company that starts with community first, and grows by being truly profitable, rather than by incurring massive amounts of debt. (See: current economy.) It’s refreshing to not be one of 10 companies the VC bets on, and if 9 of them fail, “eh, oh well, that’s statistics.”

Since we grow as we have profit, rather than funding, the biggest investment we can make is in our time, improving the software, and growing the community. There is nothing wrong with the “fauxpen source” companies’ business model, they are welcome to write good software as best they can, and get market share, but in the end, we do differentiate by our openness and our interaction with the community. When they co-opt the phrase that was meant to be equivalent to “free software” to now mean “kind of free software,” it does pure open source companies a disservice and it is a lie by omission that they equate their software to be “just as free” as ours.

Sure, that’s competition, but that’s why it’s important for us to get the word out that there is a difference.

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